2010 hangover still hanging over Canada's Olympic speedskaters
Canada doesn’t have the same calibre of talent that won five medals at the Vancouver Olympic Games
CALGARY — When the long-track speedskating season begins in Calgary this weekend, those who followed the sport in Vancouver four years ago will have a hard time recognizing the Canadian team.
Gone are steely veterans and medal machines Kristina Groves and Clara Hughes. Gone, or reduced at least, is the funding windfall through Own The Podium that bought Canada’s skaters a winning edge. Gone too is the Richmond Oval, home-track advantage and the rabid, sometimes suffocating, support of their country.
No, it’s going to be different this time around in Sochi. As for the extent of that difference, you’re invited to check back at the end of February when the medals are tallied. Expectations remain high for this country’s Winter Olympians in general and the speedskaters specifically.
We’ll know soon enough if those expectations are realistic.
“If I have to answer that, we’re tracking for three, three and a half medals,” said Sean Ireland, the long-track team’s program director when asked for a medal projection.
“We have potential for more. We have potential for less.”
You have to admit, that sounds realistic. Maybe not inspirational, but realistic.
“We lost some of our top athletes and there are a lot of new faces we’re trying to bring along,” Ireland said. “We have a number of athletes who are getting close — not to the consistency of a Christine (Nesbitt, the team’s current star), Kristina or Clara — but they’re getting close to that level.”
And this weekend will go a long way in revealing how close they really are.
While pinpointing the start of the official Olympic countdown is an inexact science, this weekend’s World Cup at the University of Calgary seems to signal something in advance of Sochi.
The Russian Games are now — yikes! — just three months away. This is also the first World Cup race of the long-track season which means it will be the first gathering of the world’s best speedskaters.
Finally, it will showcase a Canadian team which has a rich tradition of producing Olympics medals.
That, tradition, in fact, remains one of the program’s enduring strengths. Four years ago, the speedskaters produced five medals in Vancouver, including a gold by Nesbitt in the women’s 1,000 meters and gold by the men’s pursuit team of Denny Morrison, Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux. Eight years ago in Turin, it was eight medals, including five for Cindy Klassen. All told, Canada is seventh all-time in speedskating medals with 32.
So, is three to three-and-a-half medals enough for a country that produced Gaetan Boucher, Catriona Lemay-Doan and Klassen?
It might have to be.
This time around, the team is led by Nesbitt, an ingenue in Vancouver, now an established international star; and Morrison, the Fort St. John product who won gold in team pursuit after relatively disappointing results in his individual races. This is the third Olympics for both athletes.
Morrison, just so you know, was sporting a beard on Wednesday.
“They’re now the seasoned vets,” said Ireland. “They’re the team leaders in terms of performance and the way they prepare.”
“I learned so much in Vancouver about what I need to do,” said Nesbitt. “Even if we don’t have as much money (as the heady days of OTP) I’m a more efficient athlete.”
She also learned something about a medical condition which may have affected her training and performance. On Wednesday, Nesbitt revealed she’d been diagnosed with Ciliac Disease in May and has since cut gluten out of her diet.
“After a hard week of training, it would usually take four or five days to recover,” said Nesbitt, who was already the best in the world over 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters before the diagnosis.
“I found my recovery period was cut down to two or three days.
“I think my body is being fed more efficiently and my body is healthier. I think it’s made a difference in my summer training and I think that will transfer into the skating season.”
As for the rest of the team, Ireland identified Regina’s Kali Christ (three top 10s in the 1,500 last year), Winnipeg’s Tyler Derraugh (six top 10s in 1,000), Calgary’s Gilmore Junio (four top 10s, including a silver medal in the 500) and Edmonton’s Jamie Gregg as potential breakout stars in Sochi
Gregg, now 28, finished eighth in the 500 in Vancouver. This is what he remembers about that time four years ago.
“My best memory was just standing on the line. They announced my name and I couldn’t hear it, They said I was from Canada and there was just this deafening roar and I waved my hand when I figured they were going to say my name.
“It’s going to be different in Sochi.”
That much is understood.
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