Johnson: Rising speedskating star returns to venue his parents competed on at ’88 Olympics
Quebec City’s Dubreuil a junior world record holder who is building towards Sochi
The love affair began early.
“I started skating at four years old so, sorry, I can’t really give you a ‘first time’,” Laurent Dubreuil replies, scrolling fruitlessly through his mental memory banks. “There are glimpses ...
“At first, I can remember crying whenever I’d go on the ice. Then I was crying when I had to get off. But I guess that’s being four years old, right?
“Anyway, I just fell for it, for skating, when I was really young. I’ve always felt this was the right sport for me.”
His dad, Robert, luckily, is ready, and nearby, to fill in the blanks.
“His first race was, I believe, at five. He won using hockey skates. And he ended the race in a slow pass by the outside. Already back then, at five, he was watching race-car driving on TV. And when he crossed the line, he did that move” — a clenched-fist pump — “like (Michael) Schumacher would in the cockpit after he’d win.
“So you could tell then, already, he had that in his blood.
This city, this venue, is near and dear to the family’s hearts. In 1988, Robert Dubreuil competed in short track speedskating at the Calgary Winter Olympic Games, while his wife, Ariane Loignon, raced all five distances in long track. After switching to long track because of the time apart from Ariane, Robert qualified for the ’92 Albertville Games at the Olympic Oval. Raced here in World Cups, too.
Those memories have been passed on to their son. And now, with the 2013 Canadian Single Distance Championships set to open Thursday, Laurent Dubreuil has moved on to make his own memories. Four of his six personal best times have been set in Calgary.
“It’s nice to skate here,” he says. “The ice is so fast. So perfect. So much better than (home) in Quebec City, outside in the cold, minus-25. I always love to be here. Also, the history in this building. I can feel it. Because of my family. It’s always a pleasure to be in Calgary.”
With the clock on Sochi, 13 months and counting, the careful, calculated buildup of Laurent Dubreuil has been programmed to escalate. He already holds the world junior record in the 500 metres (34.66, set Jan. 22, 2012 in Salt Lake City) and cut his teeth on the senior circuit last season, finishing 11th in the 500 samalog at his first World Single Distances Championship in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
Now, it’s time to make the jump in class.
“His progression,” estimates coach Gregor Jelonek, “is good. At the beginning we set up a plan and I think the important thing for him has been to stick to the plan. For example, last year and at the beginning of this season, he could’ve gone to the World Cups. We decided not to go.
“For him, it’s to prepare, to evolve, to train in the right direction and to put his mindset at the right place, instead of rushing him into something he’s maybe not ready to cope with. I think by going step-by-step, the goals we were going for each year, we’ve achieved.
“This year, we’re upgrading the volume of training. The plan is also to make him realize that he can be on the podium. By doing this, we have to choose the right races for him to have the confidence. Especially with young athletes, when we push them too fast, for sure they’re going to have a slump.
“He hasn’t had a slump in four years.”
It all seems to be in place. The solid foundation. An unwavering trust in the blueprint. A refreshing sense of history in one so young — Dubreuil is a skating pack rat, studying tape of the stars of previous generations. Those bloodlines. And that unquantifiable intangible that sets apart the champion from the merely very good.
“I’ve rarely,” muses Dubreuil, “ever met anybody who hates to lose as much as I do. In anything. I used to be like a ‘bad loser’ when I was young. Now I can control my emotions better, but it still stays with me. If I do bad in a race, I’ll remember if for the next six months.”
That passion for skating, the reassuringly familiar comfort level with the sights and sounds of the rink, were nurtured early. But — and this is crucial — never imposed.
“If your parents want you to follow in their footsteps and put pressure on you,” says Laurent, “that’s no good. The desire has to come from deep within. While my parents were skaters and my talent comes from them, they never made me feel I HAD to skate. They were supportive. Never more, or less, than what I wanted or needed.”
There is, naturally, a wonderful kind of symmetry to another Dubreuil skating for his country at an Olympic Games.
“It would,” says the dad, “be kind of a new dream come true for us. Not carrying on tradition, exactly ... but we, Ariane and I, could relive what we enjoyed so much when we were skating.
“I was a sprinter myself, so when I’m watching races I try to skate with him. Sometimes I don’t say a word. Move a muscle. But when he’s in a corner, I try to push with him.
“I guess, in a sense, I’d be racing with him.”
The company, rest assured, would be welcome.
“I’m going to be 21 when the Olympics are on,” says Laurent Dubreuil. “Twenty-one is young in long-track speedskating. But at the same time, the last Olympic champion (South Korea’s Mo-Tae Bum) was 21 in the 500 metres in Vancouver.
“You’ve got to be well-trained. You’ve got to peak at the right time. Everything in your race has to be perfect.
“But it’s been proven. It’s do-able.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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