JOHN HOWSE December 14 1987


JOHN HOWSE December 14 1987



It was only a practice skate, but last week more than 3,500 Calgary schoolchildren wildly cheered one of Canada’s greatest Olympians as he and his teammates sped around the new $40-million indoor speed skating Olympic Oval. For Gaetan Boucher—winner of four Olympic medals, including two golds at the 1984 Winter Games—and his 14 teammates on the Canadian speed skating team, the children’s uncritical acclaim was a welcome respite from the mounting pressure to win medals at February’s Calgary Winter Games. Said Boucher, pausing to sign auto-

graphs for students from 26 city schools taking part in an Olympic Organizing Committee (OCO) event: “I’ve

never seen anything like this before. It’s great fun.”

It was even more fun on Saturday when Boucher received a prolonged standing ovation from a standing-room-only crowd after capturing a silver medal in a weekend World Cup competition that inaugurated the Calgary Oval. He did it in a 1,500-m event that was won in worldrecord time by Soviet skater Igor Zhelezovsky, who clocked one minute, 52.5 seconds. Boucher’s second-place 1:53.6 set a Canadian record.

For his teammates, Boucher, 29, is at once a model and an inspiration. His three medals at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia-gold in the 1,000-m and 1,500m events, bronze in the 500-m—represented three-quarters of the 92member Canadian team’s medal total at the last Winter Games. Boucher also won the silver medal in the 1980 Lake Placid Games’ 1000-m event and the world sprint championship in 1984. Said 22-year-old national B-team member Robert Tremblay: “Just Gaetan’s being here, his having done it all, lets us think that it’s possible for us to do it too.”

Hopes: The inspirational role comes at a crucial time for the entire Canadian team. Performing before their own countrymen, as members of the largest Canadian Winter Olympic team ever, they will carry the hopes of a nation that has invested heavily in them and the facilities for the Games (page 43). In addition, individual athletes and all but one Olympic team—bobsleigh—have enlisted the services of sports psychologists in an effort to maximize the years of training for the Calgary Games (page 44). Still, next February when the Games begin, each member of the 1988 Canadian Winter Olympic team—mindful of the millions of Canadian dollars

spent and the millions of Canadians cheering—will pay silent homage to Boucher. Four years earlier, standing alone on the highest podium in a plaza halfway around the world, Boucher twice lowered his head to accept an Olympic gold medal. The Yugoslavians—stamping their feet in the evening chill—and the worldwide television audience listened as the strains of 0 Canada proclaimed that Canadians were once again competitors, not simply participants, in the Winter Games. Fittingly, last week the world’s best athletes in Boucher’s discipline came to Calgary to compete in the world’s state-of-the-art indoor speed skating facility.

Boucher’s return from Olympus has been as treacherous as the fast ice track of the Oval. In 1985 he slipped to second place at the world sprint championships, then he plunged to 13th in 1986 and dropped to 15th in 1987. And last month at the World Cup races in Butte, Mont., Boucher finished eighth in the 1000m, and eighth and ninth in two 500-m events. Still, the veteran from Lorraine, Que., is pacing himself over the 1987-1988 competitive season—aiming to peak for February’s Games. And as the nation’s best-ever speed skater and the team’s acknowledged

leader, Boucher remains the key to Canada’s hopes for medals at the Calgary Games.

Last week’s World Cup in Calgary underlined the challenge facing Boucher and the team. Cheered on by 2,000 schoolchildren, Shelley Rhead of Moose Jaw, Sask., clipped more than seven-tenths of a second off her Canadian 500-m record. But even with that, she finished sixth behind U.S. sprinter and world record holder Bonnie Blair and East German skaters Christa Rothenburger, Karen Kania and Angela Stahnke. Said Blair: “World records are definitely going to be broken here. The ice is clean, consistent and very fast. This is the best place in the world.”

Records: Indeed, Norway’s consistent Geir Karlstad set the Olympic Oval’s first world record in the men’s 5,000-m with a time of 6:43.59, almost two seconds faster than his old world record. Canadians Jean Pichette, 24, (6:54.40) and Benoît Lamarche, 21, (6:54.45), both of Ste-Foy, Que., broke the Canadian 5,000-m record previously set by Lamarche at 6:59.28. And on the second day of competition, East Germany’s Kania set another world record, bettering her own standard in the 1,000m by more than seven-tenths of a

second. In the same race, Natalie Grenier, 23, also from Ste-Foy, set a new Canadian record while finishing tenth, 4.23 seconds behind Kania. Then Kania’s teammate, Gabi Zange, set a new world record of 4:16.76 in the women’s 3,000-m. While trailing Zange by more than 10 seconds, three Canadian skaters—Ariane Loignon, Chantal Coté and Kathy Gordonbroke the Canadian record and finished in the top 10.

In the men’s competition, Guy Thibault, 23, of Quebec City appeared ready to grasp Boucher’s torch. In a field of the best 500-m sprinters in the world, Thibault finished third (37.21) while shaving one-hundredth of a second off his mentor’s 1985 Canadian record. Said the gracious Boucher: “I’m happy. Records are meant to be broken. And it will go lower.” Boucher himself finished in 37.61 seconds, earning a 10th-place tie with American skater Dan Jansen. Added Boucher: “Thibault has the confidence now. He could win a medal in February. When our skaters see they can beat me, it’s good for them.” Indeed, the next day Thibault lowered his Canadian 500-m record again, to 37.18, finishing second. Boucher was fifth.

The list of others among last

week’s medal winners provided a preview of the Games. The powerful East German team boasts three of the world’s top women skaters—including Kania, winner of three Olympic gold medals in 1984 and three races at last month’s World Cup event. The East Germans are favored to dominate. Among other medal favorites will be 1987 world champion sprinter Akira Kuroiwa of Japan and Norway’s Karlstad, holder of world records in 5,000-m and 10,000-m events. And the strong U.S. team is led by Blair, 23, Jansen,

22, and Nick Thometz,

24, the world 500-m record holder.

Depth: The traditionally strong Soviet team is largely an unknown quantity, although 1984 Olympic gold medallist sprinter Sergei Fokichev, 26, and Igor Zhelezovsky, world 500-m champion in 1985 and 1986, are both returning. Soviet coach Boris Vasilkovski told Maclean's last week: “Our team is up to international standards. Our best chances are in short and middle events. We have no strong position in the longer events.” But for the Soviets, international standards invariably mean the top 10—and the Soviet’s modesty fooled no one. “The Soviets are the strongest men’s team overall,” said Canadian men’s coach Jack Walters,

41, a former U.S. speed skater who has coached the Canadian men since 1978. “In fact,” he added, “their Olympic team is probably their best team since the early 1960s. Their depth is tremendous.”

Canada’s men’s sprint team is the strongest ever. The top medal hopefuls, in addition to Boucher, are Thibault and Benoît Lamarche, 21, of Ste-Foy, Que. And the youthful women’s team has shown consistent improvement. According to women’s team coach Andrew Barron, who competed for Canada at both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in speed skating, the women are closing the gap with European speed skaters. Said Barron: “We are a half-second closer in sprints, two seconds in the 1,500-m and five to 10 seconds in the 5,000m—all since 1986. We are more competitive.” Barron says Gordon, 20, of Mission, B.C., who finished third in the Butte 3,000-m event, one-tenth of

a second behind Dutch star Petra Moolhuizen, is one of Canada’s most promising prospects. Said Barron: “Last year she was 10 or 15 seconds away. She has closed the gap. Her potential is beginning to show.”

Besides Gordon, Canada’s best chances for a women’s medal rest with Rhead, 22, Loignon, 22, of Montreal, and Coté, 23, of Ottawa. Said Loignon: “I’m sure we can get our times down further. I’m getting closer to the top ones. I’m looking for a top-10 finish. Once you get there, it’s

very little distance to the top three.” Coach Barron agrees: “A big part of it is confidence. The world circuit can be frightening, but now our girls are saying, ‘Hey, I can do it.’ ” And Barron looks forward to his team gaining the Olympic experience. Said Barron: “The Olympics are not just another World Cup event. They really are a full fivering circus. It’s important for young athletes to experience it, so they will know what it’s all about next time.” Leader: Boucher, of course, has been there before. Preparing for his third Olympics, he remains the central figure on the Canadian team. Said Don Wilson, team manager and physiotherapist: “Gaétan is very much a leader. He sets the standards, the limits for behavior. Curfews, for example. He goes to bed early; they go to bed early.” Wilson points out that even if Boucher does not win a medal in February, “he has contributed so much to every-

one else’s performances through his example over the years. What makes it tougher for him now is his other priorities—his family, the necessity of putting bread on the table.”

In 1985 Boucher and Karen Pfliege— 1982 West German junior champion speed skater—married. They have two children, Jean-François, 2, and MarcAntoine, 3. Boucher has earned tangible rewards from his sport, but he says that it should be better for his successors. Said the affable Boucher: “I’ve had a lot of publicity over the past few years. I have a good agent and I’ve been in a lot of commercials. But we need a better system in speed skating, bigger sponsors, bigger prizes.”

For Boucher, the Calgary Games will mark the culmination of his skating career. “We are all looking to peak at the Olympics,” he said. “I’ve got my endurance up. Now I’ll concentrate on coordination and speed. These World Cup results don’t necessarily mean the winner is the fastest. Winning can be a confidence builder, but some of the guys just are not ready at this stage in their training programs to go all out yet.”

Peaking: But the schedule in 1988 poses a problem for all skaters as they program their peaks. The world championships will be held in West Allis, Wis., on February 6 and 7, just one week before the Olympics. Explained Walters: “Like everybody else, our priority is the Olympics. But we have to do well at the Worlds, because those results decide each country’s quota for the next season on the international competition circuit.” According to Walters, the men’s eight-member team, all of whom have met Olympic team qualification criteria established by the Canadian Olympic Association (page 45), is on target as it prepares for the Canadian championships in Calgary Dec. 27-31. In early January the women fly to World Cup events at Davos, Switzerland, and Inzell, West Germany, and the men to Davos and Innsbruck, Austria.

The teams then return to North America for the world championships before the final destination of their yearlong journey, the Calgary Winter Games. They will arrive as the nation’s best-ever speed skaters, led by Boucher, a nation’s model of Olympic excellence.

-JOHN HOWSE in Calgary