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One athlete, five sports: The juggling act that's shaped Donna Vakalis' road to Rio

Fencer, simmer, runner and then some, Donna Vakalis gave up on sports only to return years later.

Donna Vakalis of Toronto will test her might at not one but five sports during the Olympic Games in Rio.

Liz Bedddall / Metro

Donna Vakalis of Toronto will test her might at not one but five sports during the Olympic Games in Rio.

If you're wondering where Olympians find all the time, you're not alone.

But even some Olympians might wonder where Donna Vakalis finds the time.

Here's the rundown: completing a PhD in environmental engineering, working as a teaching assistant at UofT, campaigning for sustainability in urban development, oh and taking on the world at not one, but five sports.

The most modern of Modern Pentathletes, multitasking may just be Vakalis's most impressive trait.

"When you're in a corner and you end up doing something that seems great - 'I had no other choice, my house was on fire, I had to jump through the burning window'. That's how I feel about my multi-tasking," she says. "I have to, because otherwise I would miss out on all the great things that are possible and there's just not enough hours in the day.

The 36-year-old competes in the five-pronged sport of Modern Pentathlon: fencing, swimming, horse jumping, running and shooting. And she thinks deeply about all of it.

"Pentathlon is a microcosm of what most people do with their lives - multitask," she says. "In the sense that most people I have met have at least two passions and so they're for sure finding ways to optimise them to have the best of both worlds. If n=2, for some people n=5 but it's the same game. It's an optimisation game you're playing."

Pressed on her own equation, Vakalis reckons for her, n=8ish. It wasn't always this way however. She dipped her toe in modern pentathlon in her early teens but left all sport behind for almost a decade.

Courtesy Team Canada

"I was a teenager, I was 15, I was getting really into skateboarding," she smiles. "I had these political and social justice ideals, I was a little vegan hardcore kid and decided the culture of sport wasn't for me."

But in her mid-20s, while doing a masters degree in architecture, sport 'snuck back up' on her.

"It was escapism - from the environmental hazards and culture of being a masters student. To go and play sports I had already done, there was a nostalgia factor, a social factor, it enforced good habits," says Vakalis.

"As an adult I can see the world in a different way, see the opportunities that sport can bring. I didn't see that as a teenager. I really thought then if I want to save the world and be a social justice advocate and learn about sustainability and green buildings, I needed to separate myself from the jocks and full-time chlorinesters. As an adult, I could almost laugh at myself then."

Since taking it back up, her sport, which has its origins as a competition for cavalry soldiers, has brought Vakalis to upwards of 50 cities around the world.  

This will be Vakalis's second Olympics after making her debut in London and, after finishing fourth in last summer's Pan Ams in her home city, she wants to make a mark in Rio. Her stirring display in Toronto last summer came after a bout of injury and illness.

That's what made it so impressive. Equally it was unpredictable, something Vakalis can struggle to enjoy.

"Sometimes, your performance on the day can be a mystery to you," she says. "You can pay attention to every last nuanced aspect of your body. You can feel all the subtleties.

"Even then, you can perform on the day that is totally mystifying, you don't know where it comes from. When you're in competition, there's something mysterious that happens."

She doesn't like the element of surprise.

"No it annoys me. The mystery definitely irks me. I assume it would annoy everyone. I'm not against surprise, I love it. Mystery, the potential for discovery, all of it. However, if there's high stakes, I would like to eliminate mystery from that. Mystery is good for other things. Not the Olympics."

The hope then is that mystery is not so prominent in the Vakalis equation in Brazil. Canada's most prolific multitasker is focused on the tasks in hand.

"For now the goals are relative," she says. "But by the time I compete, I know they'll be more definite. Overall, with the numerical goals, I certainly think they're capable of leading to a medal."

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