By Lucas Meyer with files from Sandra Prusina
Wake up around five or six in the morning and pack a cooler full of food.
Train for two or three hours, attend university or work a part-time job for the Alberta government, conduct a motivational workshop and then train for another two to three hours while finding time to eat before doing homework or marketing your sport.
Repeat five more times in six days and also find time to fundraise and find sponsors to finance your possible Olympic dream – which you have to wait until 2020 for – and finish side projects like writing a vegan cookbook.
That’s the well-documented reality of Calgary canoeist Haley Daniels, who has been leading the charge for gender equality in her sport, since only men can currently compete in it at the Olympics.
But that dream took a major step forward after her bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.
“As soon as I saw my mom and dad I started crying,” she said back in Calgary, as she prepares for the national championships in Chilliwack B.C., this weekend and enters as the reigning Canadian champion. “It was an amazing feeling knowing that all of my hard work for the last 10 years has come to this point and that I can really show that I’ve worked hard and have something to show for it with a medal.”
Daniels got hooked on whitewater canoe slalom a decade ago and has been with the national team for the last six years, rising to the top of the Canadian contingent.
In canoe slalom, competitors paddle through a course with 18 to 23 gates, including six going upstream.
Following her national title last year, Daniels finished 9th at the Australia Open this year, as well as a second place finish at the Oceania Championships in New Zealand.
And like a critical gate in the water, Toronto was a major turning point.
“I would walk around with our Canada gear and I would continually have people coming up to me and saying thank you so much for representing our country,” she said. “We were on a satellite venue so we were actually two hours away from Toronto, but it was a sold out venue which was really exciting for us because we’re a small sport.”
“I never knew that my sport had affected someone else in that way, so it was really a motivating thing.”
That motivation, along with the pure love of sport, is what keeps Daniels going when the daily grind of her self-constructed reality seems overwhelming.
Daniels, a public advocate for women in her sport, as well as the International Canoe Federation are waiting for the International Olympic Committee to decide if more medals will be given to women at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Currently, men can compete in C1 slalom and C2, which includes two men in a canoe, as well as men’s kayak, whereas women only have the latter option.
The IOC is expected to give its decision on introducing C1 for the women next month, which could also mean the end of C2 on the men’s side.
“That’s also really controversial because as much as I want my opportunity to go and compete as a canoe woman, that’s also hindering an opportunity for men to go compete in C2,” she said.
Until then, Daniels and other female athletes in slalom aren’t eligible for Sport Canada funding and even if the IOC does gives the green light, the money wouldn’t kick in for another year.
That’s meant crowdsourcing and fundraising for Daniels, while juggling work, business classes at Mount Royal University and her six hours of daily training, six days a week.
She also has a responsibility for her peers as the athlete representative for Canoe Kayak Canada.
“I’m reassessing every day for sure,” she said. “There are always obstacles that are coming up and there’s definitely some hard days where I question if I really want this and if I want to continue.”
Even with the lack of funding and not being able to focus completely on her sport, she has still turned into a top competitor and thinks about what could be.
“I’m extremely happy with my results, but I really think I could have much better results if I could just focus on my paddling and that’s what I’m competing against,” she said, noting her top international competitors benefit from the kind of sponsorship and federation support that she could have if the sport were Olympic-sanctioned.
“I’m in a reality right now and I just have to work hard and keep on hoping that they’ll be something that comes up,” she said. “There are so many people out there that are supporting me and I’m really not only representing myself, but I’m representing those people that have supported me.”
That opportunity could be just weeks away as she and her team await the IOC decision.
“I’m 90 per cent sure that it’s going to get approved, we’re just waiting for the formal approval and once that formal approval is there, I can really say I am gunning for Tokyo,” she said.
Daniels will be 29 in 2020, but after getting a taste of what representing Canada could be like during the Pan Ams, she said it gives her all the fuel to keep paddling and hopes the momentum will help the Olympic prospect.
“Just having Canada completely support you, everywhere you go, people were thanking me for inspiring them to go do something,” she said. “We work hard every day and we have this goal but we don’t actually realize that, that goal when we do achieve it, affects other people.”
“That’s something I never could’ve imagined coming from this medal.”
So as she pushes through an ankle injury and the flu she battled at the Pan Ams, Daniels has her sights set on her second Canadian championship in three years this weekend and hopes to get the good news she’s been waiting for.
And that wouldn’t just mean being an Olympian for Daniels, but also a moment that transcends from sport to culture.
“If something this big can go through, there can be the glass ceiling broken anywhere,” she said.
Lucas Meyer is a senior reporter for 660News and a Sportsnet contributor in Calgary. He is also the play-by-play voice of the University of Calgary Dinos basketball teams. Follow him on Twitter @meyer_lucas.