Column

The long nights of Nathalie Lambert

James Deacon November 3 1997
Column

The long nights of Nathalie Lambert

James Deacon November 3 1997

The long nights of Nathalie Lambert

James Deacon

Column

She looks tired. She’s fit, and blond now—no more plain old brunette—but normally vivacious Nathalie Lambert can’t conceal her fatigue. “I had to be at the rink at 7:15 for training,” she explains, sliding into her seat in a bustling restaurant in northeast Montreal. The morning session at Maurice Richard Arena was no doubt exhausting—Lambert is a well-known glutton for hard work—but there is more to her lethargy than one day’s laps. At a time when the leader of Canada’s powerful women’s short-track speed skating team ought to be full of energy, she has been persistently listless. Last month, she told reporters at a news conference that she was taking a week’s holiday in Cuba, at the height of pre-Olympic training, to get herself back on track. “I couldn’t finish the workouts that normally I am very good at,” she says. “I was just tired.”

What Lambert didn’t tell reporters that day was why she was so tired. Over Sunday brunch last week, however, the winner of one gold and two silver Olympic medals admitted she has a more unsettling problem than simple burnout. She is an insomniac, and for more than five months, she has been getting two or three hours of sleep a night when her body and mind were crying out for eight or nine.

Insomnia: it’s tough enough for stressedout execs and parents of newborns. But at least those people don’t have to strap on skates each morning and propel themselves repeatedly around a tight track, prodded by sharp elbows and even sharper skate blades—and that’s just in practice.

For an elite athlete training for the 1998 Winter Olympics next February, insomnia is a potential career-killer. Lambert’s condition has so far resisted the diagnoses of various doctors and their assorted drugs, leaving her frustrated if not downright desperate. Last week, she turned to a psychotherapist. “I don’t know,” she says, clearly exasperated, when asked what triggers her wakefulness. “If I knew that, it would solve all my problems.”

Lambert knows hard knocks. She grew up poor in east-end Montreal, the eldest of three daughters to parents who separated when she was 18. She began speed skating as a teenager because her best friend at the time was doing it. “She was gorgeous and very popular, and I was not,” Lambert says. “So I did whatever she did.” But she did it better: she is an eight-time national champion. Even then, she faces plenty of hurdles on the road to Nagano. She turns 34 on Dec. 1, which is practically ancient on the ice circuit, and she has so little cartilage left in her knees that the joints grate painfully, bone on bone. There was also guy trouble: earlier this year, she split up with fellow speed skater Fred Blackburn, her longtime boyfriend. That, at least, was amicable. ‘We wanted to be mature about it,” she says. ‘We didn’t want it to distract the team.”

Then, in July, her mother, Liliane, died suddenly of a heart attack at 63. Lambert was in the Caribbean at the time. “She died the night I came back from my holiday, before I could see her again,” she says softly. She is stoic, but her grief is obvious. “People say the first year is the hardest, so I hope the therapy helps,” Lambert says. “It will be my first Christmas without her, the first Olympics, and I have to realize that if I have kids, she will never meet them. But at least . . .” The thought remains incomplete—there is no silver lining.

So all that caused the insomnia? Not exactly. The sleeplessness predates her mother’s death, she says, and she doesn’t lie awake thinking about any one single issue. And she is philosophical about the possibility of not qualifying for the Games. The national trials are in December, and Canada has more good skaters than places on the team. “Only time will help, and if I am not ready, then that’s the way it is going to be,” she says. “I cannot control that any more.” She will be missed if she can’t go, for her leadership as much as her skating talent. When bad refereeing and the aggressive (the polite word) skating of American Cathy Turner helped turn the 1994 Olympic meet into Roller Derby on ice, it was Lambert who publicly defended the sport. Her criticisms of Turner and the officiating earned respect from competitors and fans alike, and to some extent overshadowed Lambert’s two-silver-medal performance.

She has not given up hope for Nagano. Her Cuban sojourn was a change if not a rest, and last week’s session with the therapist was encouraging. “I think it helped,” she says. “I am sleeping a little better, and I’ve had two pretty good days of training.” Whatever happens, Lambert is ready for life after racing. She has a new boyfriend, and a job lined up with the French sports network RDS. And she has all the medals and records she’ll ever need. “I don’t like it when athletes talk about the sacrifices they make, because it’s a choice we all make,” she says. “I don’t feel I sacrificed anything. I put a lot of hours into it, but I got a lot out of it, too.” Recently, she met the girl she had envied and followed into skating 20 years ago; she, too, had known hard times. In retrospect, Lambert concludes, it’s better to blossom as an adult than as a teen. “I feel so much better about myself in my 30s than I did back then,” she says. She’d feel even better, though, if she could just get some sleep.