Damian Warner's training base is a 66-year-old unheated hockey arena that the City of London flagged for potential demolition more than a decade ago.
But it's come to feel like home to the Canadian decathlon star in this bizarre Olympic year.
When COVID-19 forced Warner out of the University of Western and prevented him from crossing the border for warm-weather training in the U.S., Warner's coach Gar Leyshon — with the help of "about 100 people" — built a multi-events facility in the spartan Farquharson Arena.
"Picture a really cold ice rink. And then take out the ice. That's where we are," Warner laughed.
In a normal year, the 31-year-old and his training group would spend some of the winter in Thompson Arena on Western's campus, before escaping to the U.S. That was bad enough.
"It's funny, I was talking to some of the other athletes (about Thompson), and it's cold, and it's dark, and you're running around an ice rink. And everybody used to complain, right? Like, the corners were too sharp. It was cold in there. We couldn't wait until we got to training camps in Santa Barbara or Phoenix or Florida, or wherever," Warner said.
"If someone had told us 'You're going to be running inside (Farquharson)' we probably would have cried. But we've come together with the community and all the athletes and put together as good a training situation as we can, and it's been going really well."
In a typical Olympic season, Warner and Leyshon would have travelled to the U.S. a couple of times already. But border restrictions would have meant quarantining for a couple of weeks upon return. Plus Warner and longtime partner Jen Cotten, a former national team hurdler, are expecting a baby next month. And Leyshon is diabetic.
"You don't want to be taking any risks with COVID," said Leyshon, who's also a high school teacher currently teaching Grade 10 history online.
The pandemic's second wave plus the impending winter had Leyshon panicking about a training location, but a chance conversation about the empty Farquharson building led Warner's group there.
They hauled the pole vault and high jump pits over from Western. Coach Dennis Nielsen built a raised long jump runway and pit, which they filled with donated sand. They constructed a throwing circle, and hung protective netting. There are three 40-metre strips of Mondo track running the length of the concrete floor. They padded the end wall with mats to run into.
Some donated heaters provide a bit of warmth, but not much.
"I definitely feel like this whole situation has made us more adaptable," Warner said. "I honestly believe that if it was something that we were told (a year ago), we would have freaked out, we would have been super upset.
"But because we were handed nothing and we had no backup plans, and we came together and put this together, we just adapt. When one thing gets closed, or there's new restrictions, we just change and work around it."
Warner was pleased to hear about the recent World Cup success of Canadian speedskaters, who had been forced to train on frozen lakes the past couple months.
He said the early days of the pandemic were tougher to stomach. He'd just returned from a warm-weather camp in the U.S., and an indoor meet at LSU where he recorded personal bests in hurdles and shot put, when the Olympics were postponed.
Warner scrolled through Instagram posts of his rivals training in Europe with little or no restrictions. Meanwhile, London turned into a ghost town amid Ontario's first state of emergency.
"I remember being downtown and seeing windows and doors boarded up and it was like from a movie, it was the weirdest thing. I was expecting zombies," Warner said.
But the layoff became a blessing. He was able to fully heal the two sprained ankles that had hampered his training ahead of the 2019 world championships in Doha, where he won bronze.
And his training results — at least in his field events — are improving.
Since 40 metres is the farthest Warner can run in the arena, Leyshon said of the 10 decathlon events, training for the 400 and 1,500 metres is the most difficult to replicate.
But Warner's not sweating it.
"We continue to improve, which is good. We're healthy," he said. "I feel like I've always been one where I try not to focus too much on things that would get me upset or get me down or get me bothered.
"I understand that people are going to have certain advantages," he added. "But I think it'll just make it that much more special, once we do get to go to a nice track or somewhere that's warm."
Warner, who hasn't competed in a year, hopes to make his season debut at the famous Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis, Austria, May 29-30. His dreams of a victory at the Tokyo Olympics haven't wavered.
"Gar and I set out a long time ago what we want to try to accomplish at the Olympics. And that's still the goal, and it hasn't changed," Warner said. "Right now this (arena) the only option we have. We can't go train outside. There's no other facilities.
"As limited as the training can be, this is all we have. And if we don't make the most of it, then those goals that we set out are going to go out the window."
Olympic athletes and COVID-19 vaccines has been a hot-button topic. Leyshon believes Canadian athletes should be vaccinated ahead of Tokyo.
"I feel like, if you're going to vaccinate the entire population by September, as they keep promising, then really a few months early for 0.00001 per cent of the people, and a chance to actually have the Olympics. . . ," Leyshon said.
"But I feel like it's the IOCs job to make sure that people get vaccinated . . . It burns my ass that they're not doing more. If they're going to hold the Olympics, why aren't they making sure that all the athletes get vaccinated?"
Melissa Bishop, world silver medallist in the 800 metres, recently announced in an Instagram post that she had moved her family to Victoria for the rest of the Olympic year to work with coach Trent Stellingwerff in warmer weather and fewer COVID restrictions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press