FROM LATVIA WITH LOVE

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - T1 - BY LOREEN PINDERA

IT WAS IN­EVITABLE that Ann Walling and Ge­nady Ba­lik would even­tu­ally fig­ure out they were soul­mates. There aren’t a lot of peo­ple at the gym at 5 a.m. and, for more than a year, they’d nod and wish one another a po­lite hello on the way to their re­spec­tive tread­mills.

But it wasn’t un­til Ba­lik, once a na­tional-level weightlifter in his na­tive Latvia, found out from a fel­low gym rat that Walling owned the fast lane in the pool that he ven­tured to tell her that for years, he’d had it on his bucket list to com­plete a triathlon. The prob­lem was, he couldn’t swim.

“Watch­ing Ann – how ef­fort­lessly and eas­ily she glides through the wa­ter, it was fas­ci­nat­ing,” he re­calls, two years later.

Walling gave him a few tips and sent him a link to the To­tal Im­mer­sion swim-coach­ing site, per­suad­ing him to sign up with her for a week­end course early that spring. Like ev­ery chal­lenge Ba­lik faces, he tack­led learn­ing to swim with a vengeance.

“For four months, all he did was work on his tech­nique,” she says. “He didn’t put any speed into it; he didn’t do any­thing ex­cept work and work on learn­ing to swim prop­erly. Now he’s got the best stroke – bet­ter than mine, be­cause mine is filled with mis­takes from the past.”

Walling ne­glects to men­tion that even with her hard-to-un­learn “old de­fects,” she is still first out of the wa­ter in her age group in ev­ery triathlon. The Que­bec City na­tive did pre-med stud­ies at Univer­sity of Mi­ami on a swim schol­ar­ship, on track to com­pete in breast­stroke in the 1980 Moscow Olympics un­til Canada pulled out.

The Mon­treal car­di­ol­o­gist is hum­ble – and gen­er­ous. When she left for Mal­lorca to com­pete in the May 2016 Iron­man 70.3, she lent her new swim­ming pro­tegé her Cervélo P3 be­cause Ba­lik didn’t own a road bike.

“He had to buy bike shoes,” she says. “He’d never ped­alled clipped in. He came back from one of his first hilly rides and said to me, ‘Your Garmin says my av­er­age watts was 330. Is that OK?’” (It was im­pres­sive pedal power for a trim, com­pact guy who was still learn­ing how the gears worked.)

By the time Ba­lik struck “triathlon” off his bucket list three months later, com­plet­ing the long course in Kingston in a re­spectable 3:52:32, Ba­lik and Walling were ro­man­ti­cally in­volved – and com­mit­ted train­ing bud­dies.

Valen­tine’s Day is be­hind us, but what I love about their how-we-met tale is the un­like­li­hood of Cupid’s ar­row find­ing its tar­get, had it not been for those early-morn­ing tread­mill ses­sions and a shared love of new chal­lenges. Ba­lik, who came to Canada as a refugee with his young fam­ily in 1989, was close to 18 kg over­weight a few years ago when he signed up at the neigh­bour­hood Y, de­ter­mined to get back the six-pack he’d had as a youth after his teenage son bet him he couldn’t do it. By the time he met Walling, Ba­lik was train­ing for a Spar­tan race on Mont-trem­blant.

“He was run­ning on that tread­mill on 10 or 15 de­gree in­clines,” Walling says. “I said to my­self, ‘This guy’s made of steel.’”

Walling has been trudg­ing through predawn dark­ness to the pool since she was a kid. Now, with rounds at Mon­treal’s Jewish Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal start­ing at 7:15 a.m., she is up at four o’clock to get in the work­out she says she needs to keep her both fit and sane.

Ba­lik’s early-morn­ing reg­i­men is the prod­uct of the years he spent in mil­i­tary school in Kalin­ingrad, in what was then the Soviet Union.

“I hated run­ning,” Ba­lik tells me. “Through my en­tire youth, I’d been forced to run, for judo, for wrestling. In mil­i­tary school, it was the first thing you had to do, ev­ery morn­ing.”

Ge­nadi Ba­lik at Iron­man Mont­trem­blant

LEFT Walling and Ba­lik BE­LOW Ann Walling at Iron­man 70.3 Mal­lorca 2016 OP­PO­SITE

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