THE WINTER GAMES

Friends—Of A Kind

COOLHEADED QUEBECERS DUEL FOR GOLD ON THE SHORT TRACK

BARRY CAME February 3 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

Friends—Of A Kind

COOLHEADED QUEBECERS DUEL FOR GOLD ON THE SHORT TRACK

BARRY CAME February 3 1992

Friends—Of A Kind

THE WINTER GAMES

COOLHEADED QUEBECERS DUEL FOR GOLD ON THE SHORT TRACK

Sylvie Daigle and Nathalie Lambert have spent much of the past decade chasing each other at breakneck pace around tight ovals of ice. The two Quebec women are Canada’s queens of the wild and woolly sport known as short-track speed skating, where as many as eight contestants repeatedly hurtle in close proximity around a surface smaller than a hockey rink, often reaching speeds in excess of 25 m.p.h. Lambert, a 28-year-old Montrealer, is the reigning world champion. Daigle, 29 and a native of Sherbrooke, has won the world crown five times in the past 12 years and last November set a new world record for the 500-m distance. Both rank among Canada’s best hopes for Olympic gold next month in Albertville, where short-track speed skating, a demonstration contest at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, finally opens as a full-fledged medal event.

The spirited rivalry between the two young women has been a feature of Canada’s speed skating effort since 1981, when Lambert won a place on the national team that Daigle had joined the previous year. But while it has been a fierce rivalry, it has also been a friendly one.

Indeed, both skaters are quick to credit the other with providing the inspirational spark needed to excel in world-class competition. “We have always challenged each other to do better,” said Daigle as she carefully taped two battered, nine-year-old skates at Montreal’s Michel Normandin arena, the home of the country’s national team. “We have pushed each other for so long now that I think if one of us quit, maybe the other wouldn’t be as good,” declared Lambert the following day as she prepared for a training session at the same rink, on the northern edge of the city. Yves Nadeau, head coach of the shorttrack team, added: “They have a lot of respect for each

other’s abilities, and that has helped to lift them both to a very high level.”

Of the two, Daigle’s record is the more impressive. The slim, darkeyed athlete, the youngest in a family of five daughters and one son, has excelled almost from the moment she first laced on a pair of speed skates. She was only 9 when she competed in her first major competition, the Quebec Games. By the time she was 16, she had won a short-track world championship and a place on the national team. She represented Canada in the 500-m event in traditional long-track speed skating at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., when she was 17.

At 18, she was ranked ninth in the world in long-track, the event that

propelled fellow Quebecer and national teammate Gaétan Boucher, winner of two gold medals and a bronze in the 1984 Games, onto the world scene. But chronic weakness in the muscles in the front of her legs forced Daigle to abandon long-track racing, in which competitors skate against the clock around a 400-m oval.

But it did not keep her out of the shorter version of the sport, a rough-and-tumble race against individuals around a 110-m circuit that some have called an icebound Roller Derby. She won another short-track world crown in 1983 and two more as the decade drew to a close. In the 1988 Olympic Games at Calgary, when short-track was a demonstration event, Daigle won a gold and a silver medal.

Although Daigle narrowly lost the 1991 world championship last March to archrival Lambert, she quickly demonstrated that she remains a major force in the sport. In November, she trounced all the competition during a preOlympic event at the Albertville Ice Hall, sprinting past ^ the world’s current topg ranked skater, Yahei Zang of 5 China, and establishing in the ï process a world record for

0 the Olympic distance. She

1 covered the 500 m on the u small oval in 46.72 seconds,

the first woman to beat the 47-second mark. “Sure it felt good,” Daigle recalled, quickly adding: “But it was just a first step. I haven’t won an Olympic medal yet.”

The remark reflects Daigle’s levelheaded approach to the sport that she has come to dominate. “Sylvie’s an intelligent girl,” said teammate Lambert. “It’s one of the main reasons why she’s so hard to beat.” Throughout the past 10 years, Lambert has been spending a lot of time and effort attempting to accomplish that goal. But it was not until last March that the Montreal native finally managed to edge past her good friend and longtime rival for the world championship in short-track speed skating. Lambert had come close several times previously, winning bronze medals in the 1984 and 1985 world championships and silver medals in 1986 and 1987. And in both 1989 and 1990, Lambert defeated Daigle for the Canadian short-track championships only to fall short of victory during the worlds. In 1990, she skated all year without a loss, including a world-record performance over 1,000 m—a feat that was later disallowed because it had not been timed electronically.

But that same year, during the world championships in Amsterdam, she could only manage to place a disappointing fourth overall in the standings. “I was really strong and had the edge on everyone in 1990,”

Lambert recalled. “I even won the first race at the worlds,” she went on, before pausing to add with a sheepish grin: “Then I screwed up.”

Events took a different turn in March, when the world competition was held in Sydney, Australia. Daigle beat Lambert for the 1991 Canadian championship, which seemed to set the stage for yet another Daigle win at the worlds. But Lambert, taking part in her ninth world championship, dominated the three-day event. She won the opening 1,500 m; Daigle finished second. Then, Daigle won the 1,000 m. Going into the final 27-lap, 3,000-m event, she and Daigle were tied in

overall standings. But Lambert swept into the lead from the start and never relinquished it, holding off a last-minute rush from Daigle to win the crown. Daigle took the silver medal. In view of all the years she had skated in Daigle’s shadow, it was a satisfying win for Lambert. As she remarked at the time, “I feel really happy to have finally beaten Sylvie because every year it is between me and her.”

Despite Lambert’s win at the worlds last year, however, most of the experts give Daigle the edge in the race for the Olympic gold in the individual short-track event. And that includes national team head coach Nadeau. “Sylvie is going to have the advantage at Albertville because the Olympic race is a 500-m sprint,” he told Maclean’s. “Sylvie is smaller than Nathalie and she has better acceleration. She’s a natural sprinter with phenomenal early speed. Nathalie has more endurance and she can probably match Sylvie’s top speed, but it takes her longer to get up a head of steam.

Over 500 m, unless she gets a break at the start, she simply may not have the time.” Much the same applies in the other women’s short-track event—the 3,000-m relay—where

quick acceleration is the major asset as each of the four teammates sprint 750 m. But whatever the eventual outcome, both Daigle and Lambert have the potential to raise Canadian speed skating to levels of international prestige that have not been achieved since the heady days of Boucher’s double-gold performance. Daigle, certainly, has established herself as an Olympic favorite in view of the world record she set last November. And Lambert’s demonstration of championship form in March in Australia could not have been more well-timed. If both young women perform up to expectations in Albertville, it may well be a fitting end to a rivalry that has ornamented the sport for most of a decade.

The two fierce competitors, both of whom are single, have reached the pinnacle of their careers through a shared determination and hard work. They each train 20 hours a week, including 13 hours on the ice and the rest in the gym. As top-ranked amateur athletes, they draw a monthly stipend of $650 from Sport Canada. Lambert supplements her income through coaching and teaching physical education at the Univer-

sity of Montreal; Daigle draws some financial support from sponsors.

While neither Daigle nor Lambert has announced definitive plans to retire, each has intimated that Albertville’s Olympic Games may be their last. “If I don’t pick up a sponsor after the Olympics, I’ll probably leave world-class competition,” said Lambert, who holds a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Montreal and has been contemplating a future in coaching or sports journalism. Daigle, a vegetarian who studies classical piano in her spare time, is also looking towards a change. She has been accepted for admission to medical school at the University of Montreal, a career decision that she postponed in September in order to train for Albertville. “I don’t have the time for both medical school and speed skating, so I’m going to have to make that particular decision pretty soon,” she remarked. Clearly, the decade-long competition between Sylvie Daigle and Nathalie Lambert is drawing to a close. They will both be missed on the short-track oval.

BARRY CAME in Montreal