Speed Demons

Canada’s women speed skaters demand perfection. Even winning medals wasn’t quite enough.

Speed Demons

The chant was sandwiched between a rousing, singalong of O Canada with the house oom-pah-pah band, and an even lustier rendition of Queen’s We Are the Champions (extra emphasis on “No time for losers”). It lasted maybe 30 seconds, starting out in the grandstands by the backstretch, then spreading quickly around the smooth curves of the Richmond Oval. Christine Nesbitt had just delivered Canada’s third gold medal of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, topping the podium by 0.02 seconds in the women’s 1,000-m speed skating race, and the delirious home crowd was already looking ahead. “We want more! We want more!” they screamed.

Nesbitt didn’t need to be told. Fulfilling the prophecies and clinching the event she was touted to win—the 24-year-old from London, Ont., hadn’t lost a 1,000-m all season long—wasn’t much of a relief, or a release. There were some Kodak moments, as her mother Judith, an elementary school teacher, came to the trackside for a quick hug and to show off the “Go for gold Christine” banner her students at Lord Roberts French Immersion had drawn up on a white bedsheet. Nesbitt also entered into a lingering lip-lock with her boyfriend, Dutch long-tracker Simon Kuipers. But that was about it for passion.

At the flower ceremony—the medals would come later that night at BC Place—silver winner Annette Gerritsen of the Netherlands leapt onto the podium and thrust both arms in the air. The best Nesbitt could muster was a tight smile and a wave. If you had just arrived at the rink, you might have thought they were standing on the wrong spots.

Afterwards, as she faced a throng of reporters in the Oval’s basement, the new Olympic champion let it be known that she wasn’t exactly overjoyed with her performance. “I can’t believe it. I’m really lucky,” she said. “I don’t feel like I won Olympic gold.” The race, she explained, was probably her worst of the year, and the detailed breakdown of why took far longer than her 76.56-second skate to victory. There was a slip in her first steps off the starting line. Then her timing was off as she came out of the first corner. When her coach, Marcel Lacroix, held up a board with her split at the 200-m mark—18.36 seconds, 15th place—the doubts crept in. “I was panicking. I was definitely fighting demons,” she said. “I didn’t feel technically good. I was: ‘Oh, no! I’m not having a good race. I’m not even going to be on the podium.’ ” At the next split, the 600-m mark, she was in ninth place, and sweating it even more. “I knew I wasn’t skating very well. I almost felt like with a lap to go, the crowd fell silent when they saw how far behind I was.” (If that was indeed true, Nesbitt was the only one to notice. It was so loud inside the Richmond Oval that you could barely hear yourself think.)

What Nesbitt’s master class in self-criticism didn’t cover was one of the greatest finishes in Canadian Olympic history. Over the final 400 m, she turned on the jets, chasing down the skater she was paired with, Monique Angermuller of Germany, and blowing right past her. (“She had a piece of meat in front of her; something to chomp on,” Lacroix, her coach, explained later.) Legs churning, arms swinging, she battled down the final straightaway, crossing the line with an awkward toe kick. Good enough for first place, but not by the margin she has come to expect.

For once this season, Nesbitt was forced to watch and wonder, as the last pair, Canadian teammate Kristina Groves and Margot Boer of the Netherlands, flew around the track. The 33-year-old from Ottawa turned in the fastest final lap of the day, but in the end, her time of 1:16.78 was only good enough for fourth, 0.06 seconds behind the bronze.

Nesbitt’s muted reaction to victory speaks volumes about the headspace of many of Canada’s athletes at the 2010 Games. So too with the crowd’s—and the nation’s—hunger for more moments of triumph. The lofty ambition of owning the podium at these Olympics by capturing the most medals turned out to be unrealizable. But such goals are no longer dismissed as unattainable, or somehow un-Canadian. Success is no longer viewed as a bonus: it’s become a shared expectation.

It’s a burden that the long-track speed skaters—who were responsible for a third of the country’s 24 medals in Turin in 2006, and expected to deliver a similar performance in Vancouver—seem to have particularly taken to heart. At the tail end of Canada’s weekend horribilis—crashes that wiped out medal hopefuls, failures to launch, and an opening round loss to the Americans in men’s hockey—Groves and Nesbitt again stepped to the line for the 1,500-m, a distance where they ranked first and second in the world coming into the Games. And this time it was Groves’s turn to disown the podium, winning a conspicuously subdued silver.

To put it in perspective, the willowy blond had already captured an unexpected bronze in the 3,000-m on the opening weekend of the Olympics, followed by her near miss in the 1,000-m. She is also scheduled to race the 5,000-m, and will be part of the women’s pursuit team along with Nesbitt, heavy favourites for the gold. In a sport that has become increasingly specialized over the years, five-race athletes are an endangered species. With good reason. As Groves explained, all the distances hurt, but her misfortune is that God gave her a body that is particularly suited to meet the 1,500-m’s demands—speed and endurance. “It’s the worst,” she said. “Sometimes you can taste blood in your lungs.”

Denny MorrisonThe Richmond Oval doesn’t make things any easier. Built at sea-level along the bank of the Fraser River, its ice is unforgiving—“grippy” in speed skating parlance—offering far less glide than the fast, high-altitude tracks in Calgary and Salt Lake City. So when Ireen Wust of the Netherlands, skating in the 15th pairing of the day, turned in a time of 1:56.89—more than a second ahead of the rest of the field, Groves knew she faced a steep challenge. She flew off the start, carving out a narrow 0.07-second lead at the 300-m interval. By the 700-m mark, the home crowd was in ecstasy when the scoreboard put her ahead by 0.61. At the bell lap, Groves had slowed marginally, but was still ahead by more than half a second. The lead held up until the final curve, when her form began to fall apart. As she laboured down the last straightaway, television viewers around the world saw what Groves could not—the superimposed blue line that indicated Wust’s pace, chasing her down and pulling ahead. She crossed the finish with a time of 1:57.14, 0.25 seconds behind the leader. Nesbitt, skating immediately after, could only manage a 1:58.33, good enough for sixth. The Dutch took their third speed skating gold of the Vancouver Games.

Groves, who captured two silvers in Turin, one in the 1,500-m and another in the team pursuit, tried to joke about it. “I like silver. It looks good on me. Better than gold, I think.” But her red eyes told the truth. With victory in sight, she “tied up” over the final 100 m, she said. “It was tough, you can’t move. It’s sort of like the wheels are falling off. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way.” A remarkable performance, but not the one she expected of herself. “We’re always looking for the perfect race, and I didn’t have it today,” said Groves. “Overall I’m satisfied, but deep in my heart, I really wanted to win that race.”

That insatiable appetite for victory has a flip side, of course. When performances fall short of personal or national desires, there seems to be a growing tendency among Canadian athletes to speak in terms of letting the country down. Brittany Schussler, ranked fifth in the world in the 1,500-m, had a problem with a skate edge that cost her the pre-race warm-up. Rattled, she finished 35th. “I just couldn’t recover. Even saying that, I feel that I’m making excuses and I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m so sorry that’s what happened.” Denny Morrison, the one true medal hopeful in men’s speed skating, beat himself up after finishing ninth in the 1,000-m. “I’m the one who had to perform and I didn’t do it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating. Four years I spent getting myself psyched up, getting my confidence up, my technique perfected, my equipment honed, and now I don’t know.” And when he fared even worse in the 1,500-m, coming in 13th, he tore others down. “I don’t know if it’s something with the program or what,” said Morrison. “It’s been kind of frustrating to know that I was getting closer and closer to the Olympics, and skating poorer and poorer when I get tired.” (The next day Morrison went back before the media to publicly apologize.)

But the millions in additional funding for medal hopefuls provided by the federal government, VANOC, and programs like Own the Podium over the past five years, mean the traditional Canadian excuses for poor performances no longer apply. As Groves likes to quip, long gone are the days when the team athletic therapist was a foam roller. At these Olympics, the speed skaters are attended by an entourage of nearly 20 trainers, psychologists, masseuses, and physicians. Most are living in their own apartments, within walking distance of the venue. They have had the advantage of training at the Oval for months. “The Canadians are doing everything right,” says Johann Olav Koss, who won three speed skating golds for Norway at the Lillehammer Games. “They have been exceptionally professional. You look at the physical side, you look at the technology side, the mental side. They are ticking off all of those things.”

Lacroix says he knows why Canada’s women have again risen to the challenge, following in the footsteps of past champions like Catriona Le May Doan and Cindy Klassen. “They are fierce competitors. They are going for the kill. You can say: ‘Oh, they’re girls’ and all that, but deep down inside they are just as competitive as guys like [U.S. speed skater] Shani Davis.” The men, who took silver in the team pursuit in Turin, but haven’t won an individual medal since the 1998 Nagano Games, are tougher to crack. “That’s a really good question,” says Lacroix. “There’s no real explanation for that. I don’t know how to answer.”

Maybe it has something to do with Canada’s macho hockey culture. Klassen switched to speed skating after narrowly failing to make the women’s 1998 Nagano squad. Nesbitt spent years playing against boys on the ice and on the driveway, battling with her older brother Doug and his neighbourhood buddies. “The first thing that was obvious with Christine was her skating. Even as a little wee kid she was faster than anyone else,” says her father Wayne, a geology professor at the University of Western Ontario. “And her focus. She was always one to beat herself up. She’s driven to be the best at everything she does.” In high school, Christine was a short track speed skater. When her plans to study and train in Montreal were thwarted by the McGill admissions department, she simply secured a place at the University of Calgary, and switched to long track.

The Nesbitts had low expectations in Turin, where Christine made her Olympic debut and won a silver in the team pursuit. (“It was our lovely Italian holiday,” says Judith.) Vancouver was different. When Judith went back home to visit her mother in Melbourne, Australia, last summer, Wayne instructed her to pick up a couple of special bottles of wine for the 2010 celebration. He estimated the Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz might set them back $90. The mid-’80s vintage turned out to be more like $900. (The bank called him in London, when his wife maxed out her debit card, and put the balance on their credit card.)

After the BC Place medal ceremony, with the hard-won gold dangling from her neck, Nesbitt seemed surprised to hear that her family was ready to party. She was still focused on the races to come. When Vancouver is all over, she was asked: would she finally relax and have a drink? “I don’t really like wine. But maybe I’ll have a sip, just one sip,” she said, then smiled. “If you don’t have the race of your life and still win gold, that’s pretty sweet.”