How often do you see the CEO of a long-term care home serving food? It was a sign of the times during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic last year when seven-time Ironman John Yip found himself doing just that.
The CEO of Kensington Health, a non-profit community care organization in downtown Toronto, for five years, when the facility’s long-term care home with 350 residents was suddenly dealing with a severe staff shortagebecause of changing rules and protocols, management stepped in to help fill the gap. That meant Yip was needed to assist dementia patients at mealtimes.
“I could only serve food,” he says, “I wasn’t qualified to help with any other area.”
His view of the frontline healthcare heroes brought a different perspective of his organization. “You see how hard and committed people are working,” Yip says. “Our team is amazing and there is a lot of good happening.”
Yip was one of eight new people serving food. After setting dirty food trays in the wrong place, Yip was reprimanded by a staff member who became deeply embarrassed after figuring out who he was. But Yip was only grateful for her commitment to safety and reassured her: “I am so glad you told me what to do. It gives me comfort that you are telling everyone so, thank you.”
Despite the urgency of the first wave, there were times when Yip told his team to slow down to prevent their energy, or health, crashing like it can part way through a race. Thinking of the pandemic being more like a marathon than a sprint, he knew there was a need to plan, to think things through beyond the urgent tasks that were needed every day.
Planning for the second wave felt similar to preparing for a race day. There was a list of things to do, equipment needed, training and coaching that had to happen and then it would be all about implementation when the wave hit. While it isn’t a race for time and there’s no finish line, it was more like preparing for a race of continuing, not quitting, and remaining diligent to the vulnerable seniors they serve.
The summer of 2020 was the first time in 40 years that Yip was not involved in any athletic competitions. His introduction to triathlon came at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. where he was part of the tri club from 1991 to 1995. His first Ironman came three years later out in Penticton, B.C. and then Yip took a breather and pursued paddling, adventure racing, mountain biking, climbing and marathons.
He returned to triathlon in 2017 and joined up with NRG Performance Training. Yip needs a few more Ironman races to reach his goal of a round dozen and he really wants Hawaii to be on that list.
Coach Nigel Gray used to keep Yip on a very structured training schedule, particularly during the eight weeks leading up to any Ironman. “But the pandemic threw that all out the window,” he says. Yip had six set running routes he would use, sometimes racking up hours on track laps, “and now I look back and I don’t know how I did that.”
He has come to prefer the flexibility of exploring trails and streets in Toronto. Yip signed on to the #RunEveryStreet challenge last summer and learned so much about his hometown by exploring areas he had never seen before. “I do a new loop every time and I’ve done 40 marathons-worth of back street runs through the city,” he explains.
The trails, being such tranquil settings, have been a release for all the stress that accumulates at work. Being in charge of a large healthcare facility was probably one of the most difficult jobs someone could have in 2020.
“There’s been post-traumatic stress for me and my staff, and triathlon has been a huge outlet,” he says. Staying active makes it possible to have positivity and to project that to his team.
When the pandemic hit, Yip’s daily routine started at 5 a.m. with an indoor workout at home before jumping onto an old steel beater bike and cycling 10 km to work. After having breakfast at his desk and putting in a 12-hour shift, he rode 10 km uphill back home to his wife and children. Since the first wave, Yip has put over 2,000 km on that bike and he says that those rides saved him.
“I think the discipline of tri really helped,” he says, “I think it carries over.”
As the year drew to a close and he reflected on all the triathlon plans that were cancelled, Yip is actually grateful for what changed.
“I haven’t had an event all year but, I’ve had the best year,” he says. It was great to be outside more, to have open-water swims all summer, and to have epic long-distance cycling trips and runs.
“Usually my thoughts would be like, I have to hit this personal best, hit this milestone, get to Hawaii, but now, as much as I love races, they’re the icing on the cake. Pre-COVID, I would be thinking, gotta race, gotta race but I realize I like the training and being outside,” he says. “It is the best thing to have the freedom to do these things.”
What Yip is missing most about triathlon are the small things – sharing a coffee break during long bike rides; chatting at the end of swim lanes; hugging teammates.
“I look forward to the small things we overlooked before COVID,” he says. When the pandemic has passed, he will really enjoy being with large groups of friends to work out and be together with no masks and no distance between them.
Helen Powers is a freelance journalist from Dundas, Ont.
This story originally appeared in the January, 2021 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.