Strike of the Cobras

After a disappointing start, our short-track speed skaters used strategy, power and focus to win five medals

Chris Sorensen, Jason Kirby and Ken Macqueen
Strike of the Cobras
Photograph by Yang Lei/ Zuma/ Keystone

It probably wasn’t the way Charles Hamelin envisioned redeeming himself at the Olympics—not exactly, anyway—but as he and his teammates know all too well, there is no such thing as a predictable outcome in short-track speed skating. Sure, Hamelin was ranked first in the world in the 500-m. And, yes, he was expected to get on the podium after disappointing performances in the 1,500-m and the 1,000-m races. But nobody could have guessed how the final few seconds of his first golden performance at the Games would transpire.

Two wipeouts on the final stretch of the last lap left Hamelin staggering across the finish line in first place—a moment he would later describe as “the greatest day of my life.” But it wasn’t immediately apparent to the boisterous crowd at the Pacific Coliseum what, exactly, had just happened. That confusion was written all over the face of Hamelin’s girlfriend and fellow Olympic short-track medal winner, Marianne St-Gelais, who was watching the race from the stands. She was jumping up and down one moment, dumbfounded the next, and then screaming with excitement as she climbed over the railing to embrace Hamelin after he was declared the gold-medal winner. Such is the sport of short-track skating, where disqualifications, crashes and come-from-behind wins are the norm as skaters whip around a rink on a blade’s edge.

Until that moment, St-Gelais, a rising star, had done much of the heavy lifting for Canada’s short-track team. She won a silver medal in the women’s 500-m race. Then she, along with Tania Vicent, Jessica Gregg and Kalyna Roberge, won a silver in the women’s 3,000-m relay.

In some ways, those achievements only served to heighten the pressure on the men. But just in case Canadians were left to ponder the possibility that Hamelin had somehow fluked his way onto the top of the podium on the final day of short-track competition, he went on to give a dominating performance later that evening during the men’s 5,000-m relay, helping the Canadian team, which included his younger brother François Hamelin, win its second gold in short track that night. In doing so, he became the only Canadian athlete to win two golds in Vancouver. Altogether, the five medals—two gold, two silver and one bronze—put Canada’s short-track team just shy of Speed Skating Canada’s goal of six, which earlier on in the Games seemed like a rather ambitious target.

Given Hamelin’s status as the most accomplished member of the team, Canadians were understandably looking for a gold rush every time he doffed his skate guards. While his younger brother François was the one who got the family into short track—he apparently picked the sport out of a book of winter activities offered in Sainte-Julie, Que.—it was Charles who turned out to be the skating phenom, racking up world championships and earning a silver relay medal in Turin. The two brothers have been chasing each other all their lives, according to their father, Yves: “On bike, on ice, in any environment. I would say at the beginning François was chasing Charles, and later on Charles was chasing François.”

But when the medals didn’t materialize after the first couple of events in Vancouver, questions began to emerge about whether Hamelin had cracked under the pressure of competing at home. His first race was the men’s 1,500-m—not his best distance, but still one that many expected to see him win a medal in. Instead, he finished seventh. The disappointment was etched on his face and evident in his voice after the race. “I didn’t do as good as I can do,” said Hamelin, who came into the Games as the reigning World Cup champion. As he spoke, a TV monitor behind him flashed the medal ceremony that was taking place on the ice. “It’s just a matter of using the energy in a bad moment,” he said, explaining why he appeared to run out of gas near the end of the race.

Hamelin did better in the 1,000-m, racing alongside his brother, but ended up in fourth (François finished fifth). While observers noted that the skaters were no longer on track to win the promised half-dozen medals, Yves Hamelin, the one-time coach to both Charles and François, put a positive spin on the situation. “They made a great race, in such a race you don’t control everything,” he said. “Right after, I told them: be proud about what you’ve done and the quality of the racing.” Besides, there were still the 500-m and relay events. But what if those races also took an unexpected turn?

Fortunately for Canada, the women’s short-track skaters stepped in as the men faltered. St-Gelais awoke in the Olympic Village on Feb. 17—her 20th birthday—with the feeling that comes when you’re young, and all things are possible. Hamelin, her boyfriend, whom she describes as shy off the ice, marked the day by giving her a bouquet of flowers, some Olympic clothing and the encouragement she could accomplish great things that night. As for her race strategy, she had three objectives. “Getting into the top eight was quite feasible,” she said. “The top four was quite ambitious. And the top three was a dream.”

Strike of the Cobras
Photograph by David Gray/Reuters

As she climbed through the preliminary rounds, she worked her way from feasible to ambitious. Soon there were just three competitors left: Meng Wang, the multi-record holder and near-unstoppable force from China, Arianna Fontana of Italy, and St-Gelais’ teammate, Gregg, who like her, was making her Olympic debut. It took St-Gelais 43.7 seconds to capture the silver. The smile that broke out on the birthday girl’s face radiated joy as she circled the ice with a Canadian flag, acknowledging the cheers of more than 11,000 fans. “I pushed myself to the limit,” she said, “and went as far and as fast as I could.” Wiping away tears, she signed her first autograph before she had even left the ice. Not bad for someone who started skating at the age of 10 as a favour to a neighbour who was president of the local speed skating club in Saint-Félicien, Que., and desperate for new members.

A week later, in the 3,000-m relay, the rest of the Canadian women had reason to celebrate. St-Gelais, Gregg, Vicent and Roberge won bronze but got bumped up a spot on the podium when the South Koreans were disqualified for impeding the progress of one of China’s skaters during the final. “In almost every relay there is a [disqualification],” Canadian coach Sebastien Cros said later. “You have to be fast, you have to have good exchanges—and you have to be smart.” And, as he advised the team, be just the slightest bit cautious.

Gregg, from Edmonton, became the first member from her family of Olympians to win a medal. Her parents—Randy Gregg, formerly of the Edmonton Oilers, and long-track speed skater Kathy Vogt—met while competing at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Meanwhile, her brother Jamie competed in Vancouver in speed skating. “It’s amazing,” says Gregg, 21. “It’s a moment I’ve waited for all my life. All my family was in the stands.”

For Vicent, Vancouver marked her fourth and likely final chance at Olympic glory. At 34, she is more than a decade older than her teammates and has said she doesn’t intend to compete in future Olympic Games. “I love my team, the travel is great, and my job is to stay in shape,” says Vicent, sounding as though she could be coaxed into rethinking her retirement plans. “It’s a hard sport, but for this, for this feeling, that’s why I stay on.”

The wins by the women appeared to be a turning point for the entire team. Following the early disappointments, Yves Hamelin predicted two Canadians would end up on the podium in the men’s 500-m, although he also noted that anything can—and often does—happen in short track. He was right on both counts. Charles Hamelin started strong and led for part of the race but was later overtaken by Korea’s Si-Bak Sung. Then, in the final lap, Hamelin’s teammate, François-Louis Tremblay, lost his footing and sailed into the boards. It turned out that he had been bumped by American superstar Apollo Ohno, who came to the race with seven Olympic medals and is the best-known short-track skater on the planet, thanks to his appearance on Dancing with the Stars.

A moment later, Sung lost his balance and very nearly took Hamelin down with him. But Hamelin fought to stay upright and reached the finish line before spinning around backward and drifting off into the centre of the rink. “I was going to try and pass him on the last corner, but he fell and put his hand on my skate and I lost my balance,” Hamelin later explained. Ohno, meanwhile, was disqualified while Tremblay, after picking himself up, was awarded the bronze.

Hamelin followed up the performance with a focused effort in the men’s 5,000-m relay, in which good fortune wasn’t necessary to clinch the gold for Canada. It was all technique and strategy, including a gambit the team—which also included Hamelin’s brother, Tremblay and Oliver Jean—dubbed “Operation Cobra.” It called for giving the last skater a longer-than-usual break so he had more energy for the final leg—it also helped by temporarily confusing rival skaters.

There was, however, a hint of controversy following the award ceremony. Ohno took issue with being disqualified from the 500-m race earlier in the night. He suggested that a Canadian judge had ruled in favour of the Canadian skaters, telling NBC that “the judge saw something we didn’t see.” But all that didn’t take away from Hamelin’s victory. As he stepped on to the podium to receive his medal, Hamelin pumped his fist in the air and then showed off the hardware to a raucous crowd. Just a week earlier, he had told Maclean’s not to worry about his first two lacklustre performances. “The thing I’m really good at is getting over things like this,” he said. “I’m good at focusing on what I have to do in the next couple of days.” Fortunately for Canada, he was right.