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From off-season to Olympian

What began as an off-season activity for his hockey career has brought Ben Preisner to Tokyo to compete for Olympic gold

By Shannon Coulter, August 7, 2021, from the Hockey Canada website

The goal was clear. Ben Preisner wanted to run Olympic entry standard time at the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz., and be one of the top two Canadians in the race to qualify for the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.

The only catch for the 25-year-old? The December 2020 event would be the first official marathon he ever competed in.

“It was pretty much the only marathon in North America that you could qualify for [the Olympics],” Preisner says. “Because I didn’t have a time before that, I kind of knew the Marathon Project is my one and only shot.”

His goal was daunting. There were only three spots on Team Canada for marathon athletes and one athlete had already qualified. With experienced competitors in the field, including two Canadians also vying for an Olympic berth, there was a lot of pressure on Preisner’s debut.

On top of that, he was still new to the sport and continuously evolving his race plan from what he learned in training each day.

“There’s so many different factors that I didn’t know going into it, even just in terms of pacing and taking my proper amount of water and carbohydrates during the race,” Preisner says. “There’s a lot of different things that I had to juggle, but luckily my coach [Richard Lee] has a lot of experience and was able to guide me through a lot of that.”

Ahead of the event, the Milton, Ont., native ran his first marathon distance as a time trial, locking in an impressive time of 2:15:24. At the Marathon Project, Preisner went even faster. He finished eighth overall in the event with a time of 2:10:17, easily surpassing the Olympic entry standard of 2:11:30. He was the top Canadian in the event and, at that time, it was the fourth-fastest marathon all-time among Canadian men.

“I’m very fortunate that I was able to put it together on that day.”

Although running is a huge aspect of Preisner’s life, he’s passionate about another sport as well: hockey. In fact, his love of hockey led him to take up running as an off-season activity in the first place.

Preisner started playing hockey when he was about four years old, and he instantly fell in love with the game.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the sport,” he says. “The Milton community was great for the hockey scene.”

He played rep hockey with the Milton Winterhawks until he was in Grade 11, but from a young age he took the sport very seriously. When there was a chance to get on the ice earlier than his morning practice, his coach Paul Dodson says seven-year-old Preisner seized the opportunity.

“Ben woke up his dad I think about 5:30 in the morning and insist that they had the proper breakfast and got to the rink,” Dodson says. “They were there at 6:30 in the morning waiting to get on the ice. He was always driven to get out there. I think he had a lot of fun doing it.”

Not only was Preisner voted captain by his teammates, but he also led by example on and off the ice.

“He was very well liked and a pleasure to coach,” says coach Fred Henein. “He listened intensely, wanted to learn, wanted to get better. He was just a really good guy to have on the team.”

For Preisner, Dodson and Henein helped him to foster his love of hockey, and they had a larger impact on his life overall.

“Those two were fundamental in developing me as an athlete and I owe so much of it to them in terms of gaining leadership skills, gaining passion for the sport and tenacity,” he says. “I think they instilled a lot of skills within me, and it definitely brought me to the athlete that I am today.”

Knowing their years of coaching had such an effect on Preisner’s life was a very rewarding feeling for both Dodson and Henein.

“It’s pretty humbling, it brings tears to your eyes actually, just to think you could be that important in someone’s life,” Dodson says. “You just do it for the love of having fun and the love of the kids… it makes me very proud.”

“He’s an incredible individual to be around with the right attitude, I’m just really happy to have had any kind of influence in his life,” Henein says. “The thing with him is he was going to succeed no matter what. He’s just one of those people who is driven, very nice and easy to talk to and honestly from my perspective, it’s just a privilege to know him.”

Although he knew he wouldn’t go to the NHL, Preisner says he enjoyed having fun and playing with his friends during his minor hockey days. The friendships he made with his teammates still exist to this day.

“A lot of us went to school together, we’re a pretty tight-knit community,” he says. “It’s always nice even just having past hockey teammates reach out now wishing me good luck.”

In high school, Preisner says students could only play one sport per season. With hockey locked in as one of his sports, he began to look at other activities he could do during the off-season. That’s when he discovered running.

“I was just looking for something to do and I always knew endurance sports was kind of my forte. It ended up mainly being a way to stay in shape for hockey season.”

Hockey and running not only played well off each other, but Preisner says he was able to transfer his skillsets between the two sports.

“I think being a multi-sport athlete is really important as a younger athlete,” he says. “You develop different muscle groups and things, but [running] was also a very different sport than hockey, it’s a lot more individualized. I could focus on myself and getting myself better, and that translated a lot into hockey. I can bring that mental attitude and the worth ethic that I gained through running, and I can bring that into the change room.”

When his paths in hockey and running began to cross, Preisner decided to focus on running. From participating in cross-country to competing in the steeplechase in high school, then transitioning to the 10,000m while he attended the University of Tulsa, he gradually kept increasing the length of his races.

“I was always an endurance-based athlete,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily have the speed that a lot of these 1,500 [metre] or even 3K runners had.

“For me, it just matches my style of running to my style of training so much better.”

Preisner ran his first half-marathons in 2019, winning in Vancouver and Toronto. He says the step to the full marathon came because the Tokyo Games were approaching, and half-marathons are not an option at the Olympics.

“It was either the 10K or the marathon. The 10K is too fast for me, so the marathon is where I landed, and I love it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Preisner’s road to the Olympics. With few events to run ahead of Tokyo, he attended a training camp in Arizona to practice running at altitude. Afterwards, he travelled to Japan early with Athletics Canada to adapt to the heat and accurately plan out his water and carbohydrate needs for the race.

His Olympic experience also looks different compared to other athletes. Rather than staying in the Olympic Village, Preisner and his team are staying in a hotel in their event city of Sapporo—over 1,100 kilometres away from Tokyo. Despite the differences, the prestige of representing Canada at the Olympics remains the same.

“It’s definitely a step up. It’s a huge honour,” he says. “It’s not an easy team to make. I’m very grateful that I was nominated for the team.”

The goal at the Olympics for Preisner? Place as high as possible for his country.

“I really do put a lot of pressure on myself, but I like to turn that pressure into something good. I’m just really looking forward to showcasing that the Canada team is ready and we’re going to put our best foot out there.”