Canada’s Olympians No. 2: Christine Nesbitt

No time for patience

Christine NesbittChristine Nesbitt wrote down her great expectations in the summer of 2005. She was the new gal on the Canadian long-track speed skating team, a sport where success usually demands a long, slow apprenticeship. She was juggling geography courses at the University of Calgary, training at the adjoining Olympic Oval and living a proud, if penuriously independent, existence on the $900 a month she received as a national development team carded athlete. The Turin Olympics were six months out when she wrote to her parents, Judith and Wayne Nesbitt in London, Ont., with what seemed an audacious set of goals for a 20-year-old.

Her father recalls she planned to break into a very deep field of skaters and qualify for the Olympics in the team pursuit, where a line of three teammates race three kilometres, exchanging turns in the tough lead role. She also hoped to qualify in the Olympic 1,000-m and 1,500-m races. “It was reaching, no question about it,” says Wayne, a geology professor at the University of Western Ontario.

Her parents, though, had long since learned not to underestimate her competitive spirit, her impatience, or her motivation. “She was born independent,” says Judith. True to her plan, Nesbitt qualified in all three events, no easy feat. Her parents still thrill at the memory of watching from the stands in Turin when Nesbitt and the pursuit team won the silver medal. A leg raced by Nesbitt with Kristina Groves and Cindy Klassen, who dominated Turin with a five-medal performance, set the Olympic pursuit record. Putting things in writing, her father says, “clarifies the mind, doesn’t it?”

Apparently so. When it comes to setting personal goals, Nesbitt is a taskmaster. “I’m impatient,” she says. “Being impatient is bad, but it’s made me become consistent and focused because I didn’t want to be good when I’m 28. I want to be good now.” Even strong results tend to leave her dissatisfied. She’ll review a race video and focus on the flaws. “I’m like: ‘How did I go that fast? Because it looks like crap,’ ” she says. “Everyone has always said I’m hard on myself.” Well, and on the competition, too.

Nesbitt started off playing hockey in London, Ont., but grew frustrated by the pace of the game. After practice one day at age 12 she lingered at the rink and was struck by the speed and chaos of the short-track speed skating club. She switched sports, still remembering with a cringe the first race; her as a beginner against the youngest in the competition. “I was like this giant towering over them,” she says. “I was so clueless, I thought I’d better beat these little kids.” She did, and soon became a nationally ranked skater. In 2003 she started over again, moving to Calgary as a long-track skater, a decision that allowed her to train and attend university.

Christine Nesbitt: OLYMPIC NUGGETS

Why did you choose speed skating?
I used to play hockey. I was getting a bit tired of that and felt like I needed a change. I always enjoyed skating. My parents found out there was a short-track speed skating club in London so I gave it a shot. I didn’t like it at first.
It felt so weird.
If not speed skating, what sport would you choose? I would choose tennis. It seems like an intense, really hard sport. It looks cool and it’s exciting to watch. You have to be strong and quick but also have endurance.
Do you have a pre-event ritual?
I don’t want to have a ritual because if I can’t fit it in or I don’t do the ritual properly I don’t want to psych myself out. I’d rather know it was something I did in the race instead of question how I prepared for it.
Do you listen to music before a race or while training?
I don’t like to listen to music warming up. I used to but I thought it became more of a distraction and it wouldn’t allow me to focus on the things I needed to focus on. Working out, the only time I listen to music is on the bike. Punk rock, usually. It can pump you up.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
I have a bad sweet tooth. Also I really like salty food. If it’s not sweets and candy, it’s chips and popcorn.
Do you have an inspirational quote?
I like carpe diem (seize the day). It’s good for sport to obviously focus on now. Quotes about living in the now and focusing on the present are important to me. That’s when I have my best results.
Is there an athlete you admire outside of your sport?
Mario Lemieux. Obviously he was a great hockey player. But as a kid I always remember he seemed like a really calm, patient and well-put-together person and in control of his emotions. I kind of struggle with that. I can get mad or emotional, so that’s something I admire.
What are your post-Olympic plans?
My mom’s Australian and I haven’t been there for awhile.

She credits, or blames, much of her competitive fire on her brother, Doug, who is four years older. “I always wanted to be as good as him, or better than him,” she says. “I didn’t think being smaller or a girl or younger than him should affect that.” Her parents recall her being a holy terror when she’d play tag on an outdoor rink with her brother and his older friends. “Even as a little kid she was very quick,” says Wayne. “The guys would have a challenge on skates catching her.”

The competition even extended to video games, Christine admits. “If we were playing Mario Brothers and he got a higher score than me, he’d be like—and this is the worst, I hated it so much, and I still hate it—he’d say, ‘I retire as champion.’ So, I could never get a rematch,” she says with a laugh. Sort of a laugh. Even today she avoids playing board games because she hates to lose, she says. “I think that might come from my brother. So, thanks for that.” In fact, Christine is close to her brother, who is taking his Ph.D. in Canadian history at Queen’s University.

This time, she has pre-qualified for the Games. She had a phenomenal season last year, ranking third in the World Cup standings for the 1,500-m and first in the 1,000-m. This March, she won the world championship in the 1,000-m, an event staged in Richmond, B.C., at the Olympic Oval. That event saw her beat, for the first time, German skating legend Anni Friesinger, a 12-time single distance world champion. “What I like is she never gives up,” Friesinger, 32, said later. “That’s a sign of character, and I like it.”

The win at Richmond, which has slower ice than many ovals because of its location at sea level, buoyed Nesbitt’s confidence. The slower ice plays to her strength as a strong finisher in the 1,000-m, where many of her competitors tend to fade. The home ice advantage also gives her a mental edge, she says. “That’s the difference between being a world champion and not,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you’re stronger or fitter than someone, a lot of it is a mental game.”

Nesbitt has had an equally strong start to this year’s World Cup season, but she is cool to suggestions she is the new Cindy Klassen, as one interviewer put it. For one thing, Nesbitt will likely race in just three Olympic events compared to Klassen’s five in Turin. And then, the old Cindy Klassen—just 30, actually—may be battling back from double knee surgery, but she remains a contender. “I don’t know how she’s going to come back,” says Nesbitt. “I’ll just leave that as a question mark.” Kristina Groves, another teammate, and Friesinger are also dangerous competition, especially in the 1,500-m. “I hope they’re shaking in their boots,” she says with a laugh.

Her success on the ice is not without sacrifice. She’s unhappy with her slow progress toward her undergraduate degree in geography. “That academic life seems really appealing to me,” she says. Even at 24 she’s feeling like the old woman in class. “People are always talking about how university is the greatest time of their lives, [where] they’ve met their lifelong friends and all this,” she says. “Sometimes I’m thinking I’ve lost that opportunity, but I have other opportunities.”

She and her family place a high premium on post-secondary education—something that winter athletes especially often neglect because their competition season conflicts with the school year. Nesbitt says it took a great weight off her when her parents advised her that school can wait while she seizes this moment to shine athletically. “It bothers me that she doesn’t have time to take more courses,” concedes her father, the professor. “But you can only skate at this level when you’re young. Whatever you’re doing, do it well. And she’s doing that.”

Besides, her brother has a head start toward a Ph.D. She’s not about to let that stand uncontested.