NAGANO '98

In the fast lane

A winning finish for Canada’s speedy short-trackers

JAMES DEACON March 2 1998
NAGANO '98

In the fast lane

A winning finish for Canada’s speedy short-trackers

JAMES DEACON March 2 1998

In the fast lane

A winning finish for Canada’s speedy short-trackers

JAMES DEACON

For members of Canada’s 1998 Winter Olympic team, it was a moment to savor and celebrate. Easy to spot in their bright red outfits and poor-boy caps, clutches of athletes stood in the stands at the White Ring arena, cheering and whistling, waving Canadian flags and exchanging high fives. With good reason. Down on the ice, speed skaters Marc Gagnon, François Drolet, Derrick Campbell and Eric Bédard had just crossed the line in first place in the last event in which Canadians had a chance to win a medal—the men’s 5,000-m short-track relay. On their lap of honor, the skaters waved and shouted thanks to the dozens of teammates who had come, on the final night of competitions in Nagano, to see them race. There were skiers and hockey players and long-track speed skaters, all revelling in one last chance to hear their anthem in an Olympic arena. “Look around here and you’ll see about half the Canadian team,” said Susan Auch, the silver-medalwinning long-track speed skater. “For all of us, this was a great way to go out.”

On a night of individual sorrows, the shorttrack team rebounded to provide the crowning moment for Canada in Nagano. Earlier in the evening, both of the team’s top stars, Gagnon and Isabelle Charest, had failed to earn medals in individual events; he simply fell in the 500-m race, she lost out in the 1,000-m semifinals by two one-hundredths of a second. But just when it appeared the night was a complete bust, the men’s relay team defied the odds, avoiding any on-ice calamities to skate off with the night’s last race. “We were all laughing about it out there,” said Campbell after receiving his medal. ‘We haven’t won a relay in three years, so for us to put it all together and win the gold in the Olympics, well, that just feels so great.”

The short-trackers’ stunning victory gave Canada its 15th medal, a winter record for Canadian teams. That is fitting: speed skating was the country’s dominant sport in Nagano—the long-track team won five medals and the short-trackers finished with four. It might have been more had it not been for the woes of Gagnon, of Chicoutimi, Que., and Charest, of Montreal, who both crashed in previous nights’ events. Their coach,

Natalie Grenier, said she thought both skaters were tense going into their individual races. ‘There is pressure in any Olympic sport, and then there is the pressure you put on yourself,”

Grenier said. “It is worse for people who are expected to win, like Isabelle and Marc.”

The roller-coaster between elation and despair began on the first night of short track. In the women’s 500-m final,

Charest made a move to take the lead halfway into the race and fell when she stepped on a rubber lane marker. She knocked a Chinese rival down, too, allowing Annie Perreault to grab the lead and eventually the gold. It was a miraculous result for the native of Rock Forest, Que., who missed most of last season with knee injuries. “I am so happy, like a dream,” Perreault said. Charest was somewhat consoled when she, Perreault, Tania Vicent and Christine Boudrias captured the bronze medal in the women’s 3,000-m relay.

Gagnon, meanwhile, was despondent after being disqualified in the quarter-finals of the 1,000 m—in which he holds the world record. But Bédard, the team’s rising star, finished third and was the happiest bronze medallist around. “Just getting to the final was a bonus for me,” said Bédard, of Ste-Thècle, Que.

For many of the other Canadian athletes watching at the White Ring, short track and its crowd were a revelation. That is partly because the sport plays to several Asian border rivalries. On the night of the men’s relay, the building throbbed with Japanese horns, Korean drums and Chinese chants. There was no such thing as a quiet moment and no cheer quite so deafening as when a Japanese skater passed a Korean or a Chinese or, even better, both. There were also hundreds of colorful banners, most in Korean or Japanese, although one bearing a maple leaf read “Go fast, turn left.” “Wasn’t that great?” said Stacey Wilson, the women’s hockey team captain, after watching the men’s g relay victory. ‘The atmosphere in here 2 is incredible.”

1 For all its excitement, short track can § be cruel, as Charest and Gagnon can g attest. Four years of training can go

2 wasted because of a competitor’s ^ misstep or a brush with a pylon. “I feel

for Isabelle and Marc,” said Auch, who competed in short track early in her career. “That’s why I got out of the sport.” Grenier says the skaters learn to cope with the event’s unpredictable nature. “If you choose short track,” she says, “you have to accept the way things go.”

They did, of course. Charest cheered and whistled from the stands with her boyfriend, Jean-Pierre Coté, a Sherbrooke firefighter, as Gagnon sped through the final turns to relay gold. “I am so happy for them,” she said. “They deserve it.” And Gagnon, wearing his new medal around his neck, talked about how important the team has been to all of them. “We are very close,” he said after the final race. “We really support one another, and our team spirit is very strong.” Anyone watching at the White Ring last week knew that already. □

THE GOLDEN GIRL OF THE ICE OVAL

Fresh off the ice at Nagano’s M-Wave speed-skating oval and bearing her just-won bronze medal from the women’s 1,000-m final,

Catriona LeMay Doan looked like she could go right back out and race again. Despite the urging of event officials to keep moving—the first stop for any Olympic medal-winner is supposed to be doping control—she stood before a throng of reporters and answered all the questions, content to just enjoy the moment. She didn’t flinch when asked if Olympic stardom would inflate her image of herself. “I think the way I have been brought up, that won’t happen,” said the 26-year-old from Saskatoon. “My parents have always been level-headed and they don’t want me to change. / don’t want to change.”

Her life will, though, at least in the immediate future. Instead of taking some well-earned time off before resuming training, LeMay Doan faces a week of cameras, microphones and sponsors schmoozing on a media tour with stops in Vancouver and Toronto. The marketing of the speed queen was inevitable: she won two Olympic medals— including gold in the 500 m—carried the flag into the closing ceremonies and wore a winning smile. “You could sell a lot of toothpaste with that smile,” said one team member.

But endorsements were far from her thoughts in Nagano, where she exorcised some old demons. In her first Games in 1994, she fell midway through the 500-m race in which her teammate Susan Auch won silver. LeMay Doan was crushed until she found solace in Christianity. She credits that newfound faith with helping her handle the pressure in Nagano, particularly before the 500—the race she was expected to win. She did, in Olympic recordbreaking fashion. And while her bronze—behind gold-medallist Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands and American Chris Witty—may not have appeared as shiny, the skater was delighted. “After the 500, there was this immense feeling of relief—it is the event I trained for all year,” she said. “With this, I am a bit awestruck,” she added, cupping her new medal, “because at the beginning of the season, I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance in the 1,000."

J.D. in Nagano

Now, LeMay Doan will reap the rewards. There will be endorsements and appearance fees to boost the income she already derives from winning World Cup races. That will keep the skater and her rodeo bull-riding husband, Bart, on the road a few extra days before they go home to Calgary. She will not rest for long. She has two more World Cup competitions left on the schedule this season, and her eye on the future. “I plan to keep skating,” LeMay Doan said. "I’m aiming for 2002.” Look out, Salt Lake City.