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Canadian kayaker lives nomadic lifestyle in pursuit of Olympic dream

02/10/2015 11:54 EST | Updated 04/12/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Ben Hayward's home measures about seven square metres and is currently parked in an overflow lot in southern France.

Faced with financial challenges that could have derailed his Olympic dream, the kayaker from Edmonton has taken the nomadic lifestyle of the amateur athlete to a whole new level.

Hayward lives and travels in a camper van he built from scratch on a flatbed truck, combining his background in architecture with his need to live and train in Europe on the cheap.

"Amateur sport in Canada is pretty poorly funded as it is, and then summer sport is even worse," Hayward said in a phone interview from Australia, where he's racing this weekend. "I've been struggling with budget for the entire time I've been involved in the sport and so I knew over the next two years leading up to the Olympics that I'd need to be a full-time athlete, and bringing in an income would be pretty difficult, and so I needed to find something that would be affordable and pretty much this was the only way."

His "Hobbit Van," as he fondly refers to it, resembles a hobbit house on four wheels, complete with a round hobbit door. The 25-year-old, who's Canada's top whitewater paddler, originally planned to buy a van to live in, but after four days of searching in Wales left him empty-handed, the idea to build his own was hatched over a cold pint in a Cardiff pub.

Hayward purchased the nine-year-old army-green truck for $2,200, and he and a friend worked 18 hours a day over the next four days constructing the maple wood exterior. It was just a shell with a bed for the first couple of months before he had the time and money to devote to finishing the interior. The former Carleton architecture student has added a kitchen, and a handcrafted two-piece couch that when pushed together makes a spare bed. Power comes from a wind turbine and solar panels.

He was able to purchase appliances thanks to a crowd-funding campaign last summer. The name of every donor is hand-painted within a giant maple leaf on one outer wall.

"I tried to make it modern and rustic at the same time," said Hayward, who recently completed a video on the construction of the interior. "And so it was kind of designed to be a home office or a living room or a dining room, or a spare bed, and have a lot of dual functionality and be really space efficient. The kitchen is amazing. . . the oven I have in there is better than any one I've had in any apartments I've rented before.

"It's actually a really nice space to live in."

The total cost was $10,000, which is completely paid off, leaving him with just fuel costs and living expenses.

Hayward spent four months this past fall living in his hobbit van while he trained in France. The owners of the whitewater facility there permitted him to park it in their overflow lot.

"It was great, they were quite happy to come over for tea and coffee," Hayward said.

He never feels claustrophic in his caravan, he said.

"I actually really like it a lot. I've got a big bed in there, so it doesn't feel cramped at all," he said. "I think living in a small space encourages you to be outside a bit more, and so I've actually really enjoyed the lifestyle. It's a really nice shift, rather than staying in hotel rooms and then you end up on your laptop a little more often than you'd like."

Hayward is coming off the best season of his career, making two World Cup finals, finishing sixth and ninth in men's K1. He won Canadian national titles in four different disciplines. He has his sights on a strong showing at this summer's Pan American Games in Toronto, and then a spot on Canada's Olympic team for Rio.

He's racing the K1 this week at the Australia Open at Penrith's Whitewater Stadium, the whitewater venue for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Hayward has made the most of his trip Down Under. A couple of weeks ago he travelled to Hobbiton in New Zealand, the movie set for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Hobbit" films. Besides being a big Hobbit fan, he also got some ideas for his caravan.

"It was a lot more detailed than I thought it would be, and it's massive as well, so it was very cool. . .," he said. "And I'm also studying architecture so it was cool just to see this kind of architecture typology that has never really existed except in fiction."

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