NAGANO '98

High-speed dream team

Canadian skaters grab a fistful of medals at the spectacular M-Wave

JAMES DEACON February 23 1998
NAGANO '98

High-speed dream team

Canadian skaters grab a fistful of medals at the spectacular M-Wave

JAMES DEACON February 23 1998

High-speed dream team

Canadian skaters grab a fistful of medals at the spectacular M-Wave

JAMES DEACON

Tomomi Okazaki had just finished posting the fastest time of the day at the M-Wave in Nagano, but as she passed by stands full of adoring fans, she held her finger to her lips, asking for quiet. Trying to direct the crowd’s attention to the featured race of the day, Okazaki pointed back towards the start line, where Canada’s Catriona LeMay Doan and Susan Auch were getting set for the last pairing of the two-day sprint final. The audience responded and, for a second, there was quiet inside the cavernous M-Wave, all eyes on the two women in red and black awaiting the gun. They didn’t disappoint. Pitted against one another because they were the top skaters in the previous day’s heats, LeMay Doan and Auch blasted through the first 100 m on their way to the fastest 500-m pairing ever clocked in Olympic women’s competition. LeMay Doan crossed first, beating Auch by a mere three-tenths of a second. “What a great race,” a breathless but thrilled LeMay Doan said afterward. “Susan really pushed me.”

For the Canadians who were lucky enough to be there, the colors of Valentine’s Day will from here on be gold and silver. LeMay Doan and Auch came into the race saddled with huge expectations—they finished the World Cup season ranked first and second, respectively, in the 500 m. “I felt really nervous,” said Auch, who also captured silver at the Lillehammer Games in 1994. “But I had done well under pressure before, and that gave me confidence.” Auch jumped into an early lead and forced LeMay Doan into overdrive. “I had to tell myself that I was the strongest skater out there,” LeMay Doan said, “and trust that I could make up the ground on the back stretch.”

What a week at the races, and what a show of strength from what has suddenly become the dominant team on the Canadian Winter Olympics roster. No matter how well they do, the men’s and women’s hockey teams can muster only two medals. In five days, the long-track speed-skating team grabbed one gold, two silver and a bronze, and there were prospects for more this week. LeMay Doan holds the world record in the women’s 1,000 m and was entered in the 1,500. Among the short-track skaters, sprinters Isabelle Charest and Marc Gagnon are contenders in four events. Watching the men’s 500 at the M-Wave, 1994 double-silver medallist Nathalie Lambert was already looking ahead to this week’s short-track competition. “Isabelle and Marc are both skating really well,” says Lambert, who was sidelined last fall with a broken ankle. “I think we could get three medals in short-track.”

Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kevin Overland started it all early last week by capturing silver and bronze in a thrilling 500-m men’s long-track competition, won by local hero Hiroyasu Shimizu. Two more Canadians, Sylvain Bouchard and Patrick Bouchard (no relation), finished right behind Overland, giving Canada four of the top five spots. But in the 1,000 m on Sunday, Wotherspoon, a tall, slender 21-year-old from Red Deer, Alta., who holds the world record in the event, had a disappointing skate and the Canadians finished out of the medals.

Despite the grim overcast and cold drizzle in Nagano, it was all sweetness and light inside the spectacular M-Wave. There were the usual nationalist rivalries among the more than 10,000 who ringed the oval—the stands at a speed-skating competition are

nothing if not tribal. The Dutch in their neon-orange outfits, the Japanese in blue-and-white, Germans, Poles and clumps of redand-white Canucks waved flags, blew horns, sang songs and cheered their racers. But everyone applauded good performances, no matter the skater’s nationality, and LeMay Doan crossed the finish line to a thunderous ovation that followed her around the oval as she flashed her million-watt smile. More personally, she was congratulated while coasting down the backstretch by her husband, Bart, a rodeo bull rider who drives the Zamboni at the Calgary Oval.

LeMay Doan and Auch are each other’s toughest rivals, but it is a friendly rivalry. They credit sprint coach Derrick Auch— Susan’s brother—with promoting a team ethic that has eased whatever tensions have arisen. A lawyer who put off joining a Calgary firm so he could continue coaching the sprinters through Nagano, Derrick, 30, has an easygoing manner, and even in the minutes before the gold-medal race, he had the skaters loose and laughing. He says it helps both skaters to be able to train regularly with their fastest competition. And before taking their stances at the starting line, the two skaters wished each other luck. “I was genuinely happy to see her win,” Auch said, “to see her arms raised when she crossed the line.”

That suits the culture of the sport. There is apparent camaraderie and respect among competitors, whatever their country. At the post-medal ceremony after the men’s 500, Overland praised the diminutive Shimizu who had won out over Wotherspoon and himself. “He has the best technique of any of the sprinters,” Overland said, adding, “I am proud to be on the podium with these guys.”

Thanks to their success in the past two World Cup seasons, LeMay Doan, Auch and Wotherspoon were well-known in the speed-skating world, especially in the sport’s European hotbeds—Holland, Norway and Germany. “Canada always had one or two good skaters,” says Mette Bugge, who covers the sport for the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. “But now it is a full team, and Canada is becoming one of the big speed-skating countries.” Dan Jansen, the great American sprinter who retired after the 1994 Games, has watched the Canadians’ rise from his perch as a CBS commentator. ‘They have gained tremendous respect as a team,” he says. “Canada does not have many distance skaters, but in sprinters they are really deep.”

The revolutionary clap skate, with its hinged toe, has enabled all competitors to go faster. But it is Calgary’s Olympic Oval, a legacy of the 1988 Games, that is the biggest reason for the Canadians’ remarkable rise. It is the fastest ice in the world, which helps skaters learn to cope with higher speeds. And it is open 10 months a year, far more than most European tracks. (The Viking Ship arena built for the Lillehammer Games is open only 60 days a year because of the high cost of maintaining the ice.) At Nagano’s Holland House, a bar-restaurant near the MWave that provides a little home cooking for a rabid Dutch fans, Egon Boesten says his 15! year-old son, Jan, is on the Dutch junior team £ and wants to attend school in Calgary so he can £ train at the Olympic Oval. “Everyone wants to £ go to Canada,” Boesten says.

Watching the medal bonanza last week, Gaétan Boucher wondered what might have been. He was Canada’s hero at the Sarajevo Games in 1984, winning two golds and a bronze. But at the time there was no indoor oval—he had to train in Europe. And there were no major purses until the twilight of his career. Top competitors now can earn $100,000 annually from endorsements and international victories. “For skating, that’s a lot of money,” says Boucher, who works for Bauer, the skate manufacturer. “When the World Cup was first started [in the mid-1980s], I won a race in Switzerland and received 50 francs.”

The skaters don’t expect their Nagano success to spur construction of ovals in every neighborhood, but they hoped their medals have some impact. “It’d be nice to see lots of little kids signing up at clubs next year,” Susan Auch said. LeMay Doan wasn’t thinking about next year—she had more immediate concerns. “Now I can relax a bit,” she said, threading her way through a gauntlet of reporters. “Then it’ll be time to get ready for the next race.” □