OLYMPICS

POWER AND GLORY

Training time’s over. A team with record potential is ready for the Games to begin.

JAMES DEACON February 11 2002
OLYMPICS

POWER AND GLORY

Training time’s over. A team with record potential is ready for the Games to begin.

JAMES DEACON February 11 2002

POWER AND GLORY

OLYMPICS

Training time’s over. A team with record potential is ready for the Games to begin.

JAMES DEACON

Even in street clothes, Catriona Le May Doan turns heads as she walks into the arena. Some people clearly recognize the Olympic gold medallist and two-time Canadian female athlete of the year. Truth is, though, her athletic exploits really only make her a household face in Holland, where speed skating is huge and she’s a star. At Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddle-

Training time’s over. A team with record potential is ready for the Games to begin.

OLYMPICS

BY JAMES DEACON

Nothing is assured, though, even for odds-on favourites. Athletes get sick, suffer injuries, test positive for performanceenhancing drugs and encounter bad luck. Remember the heartbreak of skier Brian Stemmle when he caught a tip and missed a gate when he was leading the 1998 men’s downhill with the finish line in sight? Stuff happens. That said, Canadas speed skaters I have built real momentum. The dynamic I short-trackers, who won four medals in 1 1998, are primed to mount another strong I challenge (page 27).

Even in street clothes, Catriona Le May Doan turns heads as she walks into the arena. Some people clearly recognize the Olympic gold medallist and two-time Canadian female athlete of the year. Truth is, though, her athletic exploits really only make her a household face in Holland, where speed skating is huge and she’s a star. At Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome prior to a hockey game between the Flames and the Detroit Red Wings, the reality is that a lot of the guys who watch Le May Doan pass by are staring for the usual guy reasons. She’s stylishly turned out in a soft, mauve turtleneck and black flares, and every now and then she unleashes that ice-cap-melting smile. Rubberneckers don’t miss stuff like that.

Le May Doan, however, seems oblivious. The woman named to lead Canada’s team into the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City this week is a big-time hockey fan. She and her husband, Bart Doan, have a collection of hockey memorabilia at home, including an Olympic jersey she had autographed by members of the 1998 men’s hockey team, that is more prominently displayed than her own collection of medals and trophies. “They’re in a drawer somewhere,” she says with a laugh. They both watch intently—the Wings are in first place, while top-scorer Jarome Iginla is leading the rekindled Flames— but Le May Doan sees the game with a critical eye. “Sounds silly,” she says, “but I can’t help looking at how they skate. They could generate so much more power if their technique was better.”

Being a hockey-lover may help Le May Doan keep perspective in the days ahead. She is one of 157 Canadians scheduled to compete at the Salt Lake City Games, most of whom have spent years working part-time jobs and graveyard shifts and had parents remortgage houses just so they could train and keep alive their Olympic dreams. So it would be easy for the career amateurs to be bitter knowing that, no matter what they do, they won’t get a fraction of the attention back home that will be lavished on the 23 millionaires taking a break from the National Hockey League season. This is Canada, and hockey rules.

Still, when national Olympic officials went looking for a flag-bearer to lead the team, they did the right thing. They chose Le May Doan. She has added some sponsorship income in recent months, but for

most of her career, she shared the experience of other amateur athletes in Canada, who scrape along and compete for, corny as it sounds, the love of it. At 31, she’s a three-time Olympian who’s favoured to win another gold medal in her 500-m specialty next week, so she has the stature among her peers to carry the colours into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium at the University of Utah on Friday night.

And know this: speed skating is vastly more important to Canada’s overall Olympic aspirations than hockey. The stickhandlers can, at best, win two medals in Salt Lake; speed skaters, on the oval and the short track, won nine in Nagano four years ago. So if they come close to matching that again, then 2002 ought to be a recordsetting Games for Canada. Pairs world champions Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz and rejuvenated veteran Elvis Stojko should all contend in the Games’ highestprofile sport, figure skating. And both men’s and women’s curling quartets are listed as gold-medal favourites. Pierre Lueders, meanwhile, seems to have finally found the right brakeman—Giulio Zardo—to help him defend the 1998 gold medal he won with Dave MacEachern, and Michelle Kelly and Lindsay Alcock have both shown podium potential in skeleton, the headfirst luge event added this year.

On the slopes, alpine skier Allison Forsyth is a threat in the giant slalom, as are Snowboarder Jasey-Jay Anderson and a handful of freestylers, from aerialists Veronica Brenner and Nicolas Fontaine to mogul skiers Stéphane Rochon and JeanLuc Brassard. In all, it’s not difficult to imagine the team beating its Winter Games record of 15 medals—and fifthplace finish overall—won in 1998.

^ On the oval, Le May Doan hasn’t lost a I 500-m race in more than a year, and she’s § a threat at 1,000 m as well. Same goes for ~ Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., who has been world champion at both 500 m and 1,000 m in three of the last four years and holds the 1,000-m world record. He’s being pushed at both distances by training partner Mike Ireland of Winnipeg, who won the 2001 world overall sprint championship. And Dustin Molicki of Calgary and Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at 1,500 m in the men’s and women’s World Cup standings. The Canadians are used to training on fast ice in Calgary, and if anything, it’s even faster at the new Utah Olympic Oval. So many forecasters are predicting not only gold for Le May Doan and Wotherspoon, but world records as well. That cranks up the pressure a bit, but Sean Ireland, the soft-spoken coach who directs the sprinters, doubts it’ll affect them. “They’ve been there before, they know what to expect—the hype and all that,” Ireland says. “They know how to deal with it.”

For the wrong reasons, there are lower expectations of the women’s hockey team these days. They lost the gold-medal game four years ago to the Americans, and lately, the Canadians have dropped eight straight games to their arch rivals. The Americans have improved enormously thanks to funding that allowed them to train together for the last two years. That leaves the Canadians, who only began their preOlympic training last fall, as Salt Lake underdogs. “We used to find ways to win the big games, and maybe we thought that’d always be the case,” says smooth-skating blueliner Geraldine Heaney. “Now we know we have to change, we have to improve—we can’t just stay the same.”

They won’t. For one thing, long-time star Nancy Drolet was dropped in favour of youngster Cherie Piper. Drolet appealed

TOUGH IN THETURNS

Since 1992, when the sport was admitted into the Winter Games, Quebec has produced all but a handful of Canada’s elite short-track speed skaters. In fact, the province is home to 11 of the 12 Canadians going to Salt Lake City to battle their Korean and Chinese rivals—British Columbian Alanna Kraus is the only exception. Four-time world champion Marc Gagnon, who will compete in four races (500 m, 1000 m, 1500 m and relay), is featured in pre-Olympics TV commercials in Quebec. “You find as many organized skating clubs here as in all the rest of Canada,” says national team coach Guy Thibault. As a result, most of the skaters train and travel

as a unit. “Of all the teams I have known,” says veteran star Isabelle Charest, “this is the best, the tightest group, the most fun-loving too.”

It is a remarkable sport, especially live. Skaters zip around at amazing speeds in tight packs, knees bent, bodies thrust forward. They cover the length of an Olympic-sized surface in only three powerful strides, then take the sharp turns banking at gravity-defying angles, laying a gloved hand on the ice for support and balance. “Imagine a car instead of a human, coming into these sharp curves at 50 km/h on ice, and you have the picture,” Gagnon says, explaining why spectacular falls seem so frequent. “Just a glitch in concentration, and you are flying off.”

There are medal contenders throughout the

Canadian squad, but Charest and Gagnon are the acknowledged leaders. They’ve had their share of bad luck at past Olympics. At 31, Charest is making a comeback after a year-long break, hoping the 500-m event in her third Games will bring her the solo gold medal that so far has eluded her. “Getting back in top shape was relatively easy,” she says, “but regaining the technical edge that can allow you a chance to win was extremely hard.” Former-champion-turned-broadcaster Nathalie Lambert predicts the team can “easily come back with four or five medals.” Coach Thibault is more diplomatic. “We should make the finals in all eight races; for the rest, we’ll see.”

Benoit Aubin in Montreal

the decision to the Canadian Hockey Association, and a decision is expected before the Games begin. Heaney can sympathize: like a lot of the veterans, she might have retired after the last Olympics had the national team won in Nagano, and it was a tough decision to commit for another four years and put off getting on with life after sports. Now the native of Northern Ireland, who is known for sipping the odd Guinness as a “source of iron,” is happy with the decision she made. “I guess you could say I’ve sacrificed a lot,” she says, then adds with a laugh: “But really, I’ve had so much fun playing hockey.”

On the ice, the team spent that last few weeks in Calgary shoring up some weaknesses, in particular the sputtering powerplay. Heaney is confident her team will bounce back. “We lost in 1998, but then we came back with three World Championship wins,” she says. “So we’re still confident—there isn’t one woman on this team who doesn’t think we can win.” There probably shouldn’t be any pressure on the men’s team. Never mind those moronic beer commercials that portray European and American players cowering at the prospect of facing rough, tough

Canadians—the men in maple leaves will be contenders, but they haven’t scared anyone except their own fans in a long time. Five other countries could finish ahead of them: the Czechs are defending champions, Russia has the hottest goaltender, the Swedes—even without Peter Forsberg—have tons of big-ice talent, the Yanks have home-ice advantage and the Finns beat Canada for bronze the last time.

Yet no Canadians in Salt Lake City will bear greater expectations than the 23 men’s hockey players. An Olympic victory would be this generation’s 1972 Summit Series, an event that transcends sport. So the team’s development, from the appointment of executive director Wayne Gretzky to the final roster choices, has been more scrutinized than the last Quebec referendum results. There is palpable anxiety over the game-worthiness of Steve Yzerman (aching knee), Eric Lindros (aching head) and Theo Fleury (aching psyche). And oh, the goal tending. Patrick Roy didn’t want to play, and the chosen three—Curtis Joseph, Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour—are not making anyone forget Russia’s Nikolai Khabibulin, let alone Czech star Dominik Hasek. Gulp.

Gretzky, however, seems serenely confident, as if he knows something he’s not telling the rest of us. What he is saying, through his choice of coaches, is that the on-ice tactics in Nagano were wrong, and that the personnel required to succeed on the larger international ice surface isn’t the same as might excel in the cramped confines of an NHL rink. That’s why he, Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe and head coach Pat Quinn chose speed and stickhandling and smarts over bang and crash, and took kids like Iginla, Simon Gagné, Eric Brewer and Ed Jovanovski over more established competitors. “We want to play a puck-possession game and take the play to the opposition, but not forget that defence is primary in your ultimate success,” Quinn says. “We believe the type of players we’ve selected will let us play that game.” The style change appeals to Nagano vets. Yzerman says the 1998 team exhausted itself with an ineffective dump-and-chase system: it was too easy for defenders to get rid of the puck before forecheckers closed in. “It’s a different game on the big ice, less attacking than the NHL—the game slows down a bit,” says the Detroit centre. There’s a psychological adjustment, too. “A lot of

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GOING FOR A SWEEP

The women’s and men’s curling teams have a lot to live up to-and live down. The pressure starts with the notion that Canadians should do well; after all, the reasoning goes, as proud owners of the winningest record in world championship play, it’s natural for them to dominate the Winter Games as well. Then there’s the personal dynamic. Kelley Law and her New Westminster-based team-third Julie Skinner, second Georgina Wheatcroft and lead Diane Nelson-follow in the footsteps of the much-loved Sandra Schmirler, whose Reginabased team won the 1998 Olympic bonspiel. Sadly, Schmirler died of cancer in March, 2000, at age 36, so Law and company are especially deter-

guys are going to be back for a second time around, and they understand that its not like a best-of-seven playoff series,” says Colorado defender Rob Blake. “If you lose, you’re done, you’re out of the gold-medal game. So every game is so, so important.” Gretzky says he doesn’t regard all the na-

mined to sweep up gold again. “Until the final rock is thrown,” says Law, “that’s what we’ll be fighting for.” Kevin Martin and his Edmonton squad may have an even tougher fight to improve on Mike Harris’s silver-medal performance in 1998. The calibre of men’s curling worldwide has improved dramatically in the last decade, and in Salt Lake City, Martin says, “Seven out of the 10 teams are at the level where they could make the playoffs.”

The Canadian women put their team together three years ago with the goal of winning gold at the Games, and they’ve since worked with nutritionists, personal trainers and even a sports psychologist. “We’re right on schedule with our training,” says Wheatcroft. “We have everything scheduled to peak right when we’re in Salt Lake City.” Preparation is

tional gnashing of teeth as added pressure. Instead, he says Canada has greater motivation, and an important edge on other countries, because a victory would mean more to fans here than anywhere else. He has his own motivations. Certainly, by volunteering for the national team post, he

key: the curlers will have little time to warm up to conditions at The Ice Sheet, a general-purpose arena on the Weber State University campus in Ogden, 45 km north of Salt Lake City, that’s serving as the curling venue. In their first game, Law and her team take on the Swedes, widely considered Canada’s toughest competition for the gold.

The Swedes could present problems for Martin and his team-third Don Walchuk, second Carter Rycroft and lead Don Bartlett-too. Peter Lindholm’s rink from Oestersund has defeated Martin in several recent encounters. But the Canadian skip seems unfazed. “We feel good,” Martin says. “This year, our win-loss record’s the best it’s ever been. We’re ready.”

Barbara Wickens

has boosted his visibility and therefore his value to a lucrative roster of endorsers. But his shining reputation is riding on this year’s entry, and he knows the only way to keep the shine is to bring home what Canadians so desperately want. “What I care about is putting together the best

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team possible,” he says, “because if we don’t win, I’m going to take more heat than anybody. So as a group, we tried to pick the players who we feel give us the best shot at gold.”

Hockey may be Canada’s obsession, but the darling of American TV, figure skating, gets the main stage—the sparkling Salt Lake Ice Center. For Salé and Pelletier, the chance to grab the spodight is a remarkable turn of events. Four years ago, they were without partners and considering retirement—Pelletier was slinging beer at a pub

at the Molson Centre in Montreal. Now they’re heading into the Winter Games as world champions. In their short history together, Pelletier says, they have been able to rise to the occasion when opportunities presented themselves—“and the Olympics are the biggest opportunity of all.” Says Salé: “It’s a cool feeling knowing that, with two good skates, we can walk away with a gold medal.’'

Somewhat surprisingly, this may be one of Canadas more successful figure skating teams. Surprising because, after being

racked by injuries for three years, Stojko has emerged healthy and dangerous. And surprising because, after years of apparent disdain, ice-dancing judges seem to have warmed up to Bourne and Kraatz. Stojko was terrific in his national championshipwinning skate in Hamilton last month, landing an array of jumps that included a quad-triple combination—tough to beat even for the young Russian studs, Evgeni Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin. “I’ll take on whomever is ready to challenge,” Stojko says. “It’s going to be damn fun doing

it. They know I’m healthy and ready to go, and that I’m in the hunt again.”

Last December at the Grand Prix Final in Kitchener, Ont., Bourne and Kraatz finally defeated their European rivals in a major event. The difference? Under the direction of coach Tatiana Tarasova, they’re more dynamic than ever before, and to a certain extent, more conventional—their past innovations had been lost on a sport that demanded conformity. Apparently the judges approved of the changes, leading many to upgrade the couple’s prospects

from their fourth-place finish in 1998. “We were fighting the system,” Kraatz says, adding: “This time around, there’s no question we have done everything we can do to prepare.”

There was a time even recently that Brassard, who is going to his fourth Games and won his moguls gold in Lillehammer eight years ago, looked as if his sport had passed him by. He spent most of the last two years off skis after surgery to repair major knee ligament damage, so Rochon became the medal hopeful on the formi-

dable Canadian team. But quiedy, Brassard honed his technique and rebuilt his confidence, and he finished third at his last event before breaking for pre-Olympic training. So now he’s exactly where he wants to be, on form but without anyone expecting anything from him. “A lot of the guys see me as an old grandfather,” says the 29-year-old. “But you know, I like that.” If there is a reason for concern with this Canadian team, it is that it relies too heavily on veterans. Amateur sport programs were gutted by Ottawa’s 1990s budget

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cuts, which shortchanged an entire generation of up-and-coming Olympians. The cuts tore into summer sports especially, and it showed with a disappointing medal tally in Sydney two years ago. Winter sports have been more resilient. Some simply have better corporate funding, while athletes in other sports—notably long-track speed skaters and sledders— have thrived because of access to top facilities built in Calgary for the 1988 Winter Games. Competitors from all over the world now train there, but the impact has been greatest on the home team. Canada won only two silver and three bronze medals in Calgary, but thanks to the legacy

of those Games, the medal total has been rising ever since.

In Canada, though, “medals” are not synonyms for “money.” Speed skater Susan Auch won silvers in both 1994 and 1998, but gets little outside income other than the monthly Sport Canada stipend of $1,100 that all carded athletes get. Yet she’s back for her fifth Olympics. “It’s an addictive lifestyle,” she says, smiling, “but at least it’s a healthy addiction.”

Le May Doan won a gold and a bronze in Nagano, but didn’t sign a single endorsement when she got home. Sponsors instead threw money at snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who gained worldwide notori-

ety for a victory in the giant slalom and subsequent positive test for marijuana. Rebagliati disappeared just as quickly from public view, and sponsors came to their senses. Now, Le May Doan’s appearing on the TV spots, and she and Bart have finally been able to buy a house.

They’re not there much: she travels to races all winter, and Bart, a pro steer wrestler, competes on a summer rodeo circuit. But the house is theirs, it has a yard and a garden, and in a small way, Le May Doan has proven that talent and perseverance can prevail over tabloid appeal. Which is kind of nice, since that’s what the Olympics are supposed to be about. EH

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