THE WINTER GAMES

Leaders of the pack

Short-track speed skaters race towards a record medal haul

BARRY CAME February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

Leaders of the pack

Short-track speed skaters race towards a record medal haul

BARRY CAME February 14 1994

Leaders of the pack

THE WINTER GAMES

Short-track speed skaters race towards a record medal haul

BARRY CAME

There are 10 in all: five young women and five even younger men. On recent wintry evenings in Montreal, nine of them could be found on a hockey rink in the city’s north end, rocketing around in single file at breakneck speeds. Helmeted heads held low, legs pumping in unison, arms swinging in time, they leaned into each other as they accelerated until there were moments when it appeared as if they were no longer individuals but a single flying creature on flashing blades. Quite clearly, they are a team, these young men and women who make up Canada’s Olympic short-track speed skating squad—and they are among the country’s best hopes for gold at Lillehammer.

events to the program. That gives us six races in all—men’s and women’s 500 m, men’s and women’s 1,000 m and the two team relays.” Glancing at his watch, he paused long enough to signal a break for his skaters. “I guess we’ve got a real good chance for a medal in every event.”

In fact, this year’s team may even outperform the one that captured a gold and two silvers at Albertville in 1992, when the sport made its debut as a full-fledged Olympic event. “On paper at least, we’re in better shape now than we were the last time around,” said head coach Yves Nadeau as, stopwatch in hand, he monitored the progress of his charges hurtling around the ice. “Medallists from last time are back, including Frédéric Blackburn, who won the two silvers. We’ve got two reigning world champions in Nathalie Lambert and Marc Gagnon, the best individual woman and the best individual man on ice this year. Sylvie Daigle is with us again, ready for her fifth Olympics.” And to top it all off, Nadeau continued: “They’ve added two more short-track

In short track, competitors race against each other in tight packs, rather than against the clock as in more established long track. Why Quebecers so dominate the sport is a matter of speculation. “All you need are a pair of skates and lots of available ice,” said Nadeau. “It’s relatively cheap and anyone can do it.” Quebec has dozens of local short-track clubs—and coaches who know the sport. Chief among them is Nadeau—named Quebec’s top amateur sport coach three times—who has been running a comprehensive short-track program at the Michel Normandin Arena for nearly a decade, far longer than any other program in Canada. And there is Quebec’s skating tradition, personified by Gaétan Boucher, a four-time longtrack Olympic medallist. “Gaétan may have been a long-tracker,” explained Sylvie Daigle, 31, of Sherbrooke, “but he’s still a hero in Quebec for anyone on skates.”

For all the visions of glory in Lillehammer, Daigle is the prime example of why, as Nadeau put it, “you can’t make predictions in a crazy sport like this, where so much depends on chance.” The overwhelming gold-medal favorite in the 500 m in Albertville, Daigle was knocked out of the competi-

tion by an American opponent who inadvertently nicked her skate blade. But after taking a year off to attend medical school in Montreal, Daigle is back—although no longer the leader on the team.

That role belongs to her longtime rival, 30year-old Nathalie Lambert. Emerging from Daigle’s shadow, the Montrealer has blossomed into one of the best skaters Canada has ever produced. In March in Beijing, she stumbled in the 500, but rebounded with victories in the 1,000,1,500 and 3,000 m to win her second overall world short-track title. And in November, on the Olympic track at Hamar, Norway, she covered 1,000 m in one minute 34.07 seconds—shattering the world record by more than three full seconds.

Lambert, who had been considering retirement after winning the relay gold and placing sixth in the 500 at Albertville, claimed that she owes much of her newfound success to her boyfriend, teammate Frédéric Blackburn. “Fred taught me how to eat,” she said. “I was a junk food addict: potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, doughnuts, desserts. Fred hated all that stuff, so I gradually began to follow his diet. It wasn’t planned, but over the course of a year I lost 22 lb. I started to feel a lot better and skate a lot faster.” Blackburn, too, claimed to have drawn benefits from the relationship. “It’s matured me,” said the ponytailed 21-yearold from Chicoutimi. “I’ve got some stability in my life outside the rink now and that’s helped me to focus on what I do best inside the rink.”

What Blackburn does best is career around the pylons that mark the boundaries of the tight, 111-m-long course, often reaching speeds in excess of 40 km/h while fending off five swift opponents. But “Flying Fred” acknowledges that he has been woefully inconsistent in recent years. He shone at Albertville, winning a team silver in the 5,000-m men’s relay and an individual silver over 1,000 m. Last

March in the worlds at Beijing, however, he managed only 22nd place. He bounced right back in the fall at Lillehammer, winning the men’s overall title at the pre-Olympic meet.

If Blackburn can hold his form, he has a shot at mounting the podium in Norway in both the 500and 1,000-m events. A safer bet, however, is the men’s relay, where the fleet Quebecer can call on strong support from his teammates. Derrick Campbell, 22, of Cambridge, Ont., is the outsider on the squad, one of only two non-Quebecers and the only one who does not train with Nadeau in Montreal. Stephen Gough, 20, is from Fredericton, but he has been an integral part of Nadeau’s effort for the past three years. The fourth man in the relay will be 18-year-old Marc Gagnon of Chicoutimi.

Campbell raised a few eyebrows two years ago when he spurned the chance to join Nadeau in Montreal, training in Calgary instead. But the decision does not appear to have hurt his performance: he helped the Canadian team win a gold medal in the 5,000m relay in Hamar last November, and he skated strongly in the Olympic trials outside Ottawa the next month.

A more pressing concern for the team has been Gagnon’s health. During the pre-Olympic competition at Lillehammer, the reigning men’s world titlist collided with another skater and fractured a vertebra in his lower spine. Judging from the way he has been hurling himself around the ice, Gagnon appears to have recovered from his injuries, despite some lingering discomfort. “The real problem is not my back but my head,” he said. “It’s a pretty scary thing to happen.” Then he brightened, shrugged. “I guess you have to be just a little bit crazy to compete in this sport,” he said, skating off to join his teammates who were forming up single file to race round and round the rink.

BARRY CAME in Montreal