Johnson: Klassen determined to gain new life on long speedskating career
Canadian legend working to become a medal threat again at age 34
There is, says someone who should know, always doubt. Both in good times, and bad.
“Throughout my whole career,” Cindy Klassen is assuring you, “I’ve had moments like that. Even going into my very first Olympics, the 2001-2002 season, I remember thinking ‘What am I doing here?’ Wondering if maybe it wasn’t time to move on.
“And that was going into my first Olympics, in Salt Lake City. Ten years ago.”
Before Turin. Before history.
“Part of skating,” she continues, working the stationary bike on floor level at the Olympic Oval, “is dealing with the downs. Conquering them, getting past them. It’s easy to get disappointed. The last few years, it feels like . . . well, it’s been tough. A battle. But I think that’s also what’s exciting. Being able to deal with adversity.
“We’re not going to grow if we don’t have that conflict, aren’t faced with those kinds of challenges. I’m always trying to look forward, stay positive, even if I’m going through a really rough time. Like this fall. I think had my worst results in a long, long time.
“But that’s part of sports.” A rueful smile. “And part of getting old.”
Cindy Klassen will be 34 by the time the Sochi Olympics roll around. Much of the on-ice magic has been since missing since staging a determined, courageous comeback from double knee-surgery in order to compete at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The 2006 Games, and her astonishing five-medal haul, are a full six years in the distance. Yet she is still Cindy Klassen, and all that has meant to a blossoming speedskating program in this country; to national pride; to Canadian sport in general.
And she hasn’t given up the fight.
A tremendously encouraging summer was blighted by more unfortunate health issues — a bulging disc in her back that forced a revise in training and a rethink in her competition schedule. On Thursday’s opening of the Canadian Single Distance Championships, Klassen placed third in the 3,000 metres with a clocking of 4:10.02, trailing Brittany Schussler (4:09.51) and Christine Nesbitt (4:09.78).
Not top of the pops, exactly, but certainly something tangible to build on.
“She’s starting to come more into her own,” said her coach, Bart Schouten, following Thursday’s 3,000. “Her skating was better today. It was a decent race, on the podium. So yeah, I think it’s coming along.
“We still believe she can win medals. Anyone who saw her skating in August would’ve said the same thing.
“She’s had a setback with the back injury. But she’s moving in the right direction. Today was a big step. She’s really found her focus after Christmas. She’s more determined again. She’s been tougher in the choices she’s been making, like a real elite athlete, what we expect of her.”
In retrospect, Schouten admits that they pushed too hard too fast in recuperating from the disc problem, trying to compensate for time lost. As a result, the regimen that aided in such an encouraging summer has been altered and the decision made to forego the World All-Around Championships to concentrate on the Single Distances, allowing for more training, and rest, and time.
Schouten believes a brief away spell from the rink to decompress and re-energize during the holidays has been of inestimable benefit, as well.
“She’s really turned a corner here,” he enthuses. “You can tell that she’s really made up her mind: Yes, I want to do this one more time. I really want to go to another Olympics and I want to win a medal.
“She’s determined. If she keeps that mentality, that attitude, we think she can do really well.
“The biggest think is her mindset.”
Years of competition, the unrelenting commitment required to be a high-performance athlete — the training, the travel — has undoubtedly taken a toll on Cindy Klassen. As it does on them all. And after the glories of Turin, she’s certainly been handed ample reason to step away and move on to the next phase of her life. The injuries. Frustration at not being able to re-scale those dizzying heights.
Surrender, though, has never been in her vocabulary.
“The ultimate reason I’m skating is for Christ, for my faith. I feel like God has given me this gift to skate and I want to glorify him through my skating.
“I really feel like He wants me to be there.
“If I make it through next year, that would be it. If I can qualify (for Sochi), I’d know coming to the end of my career. The Olympics are so special. So different from any other competition. And they’re only a little over a year away. Just around the corner.
“It’d be ... amazing.
“I’d love to see myself at one more.”
No more than a nation eager to celebrate with her again.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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