OLYMPICS

AN ICE QUEEN’S FIRE

Cindy Klassen Is our best hope for multiple medals at this year’s Games

January 30 2006
OLYMPICS

AN ICE QUEEN’S FIRE

Cindy Klassen Is our best hope for multiple medals at this year’s Games

January 30 2006

AN ICE QUEEN’S FIRE

Cindy Klassen Is our best hope for multiple medals at this year’s Games

OLYMPICS

BY KEN MACQUEEN • It’s lunchtime at the Calgary Olympic Oval, and Cindy Klassen is multi-tasking: conducting an interview with Maclean’s while demolishing two sturdy homemade sandwiches. Life grows ever more intense this Olympic season for the 26-yearold Winnipegger, who traded her hockey stick for speed skates eight years ago and never looked back. She flew into Salt Lake City in 2002—under the radar to all but the speedskating fraternity and the entire long-trackmad Dutch nation. She promptly won Canada’s first medal of the Games, a bronze in the 3,000 m, before her family even arrived in Utah. Parents Helga and Jake Klassen won’t make that mistake twice—not with the expectations heaped on their daughter for Turin. They’ve booked two weeks in Italy.

Speed skaters, both the long and the frenetic short-track athletes, have generated an astounding 56 per cent of all Canadian medals at the past two Winter Olympics. This year’s team, in both branches of the sport, may be the most formidable yet. Of these athletes, Klassen, though you’d never hear so from her, may be the strongest of a tough lot. That says plenty, considering that several teammates—including veteran sprinter Jeremy Wotherspoon, with a record 57 career World Cup wins, multiple Olympic medallist Clara Hughes, and rising talent Kristina Groves— are tearing it up on the international circuit. The Canadian Olympic Committee, emboldened by Klassen’s stellar performance the past two years, says she has the potential to be the first Canadian to ever win four medals at a single Olympic Games.

“Going into this Olympic season is a lot different,” concedes Klassen. For one thing, her bronze and two fourth-place finishes in Utah gave her a new confidence. As well, she says, though you wouldn’t know it from the scant remains of her second sandwich, “there’s a lot more on my plate.” The increased attention, the media interviews and other turmoil are a reality she and her coach, Neal Marshall, discuss and occasionally simulate. “It’s like anything else,” says Marshall. “If you have a bit of practice at it, you’ll be better at trying to cope with it when it comes.”

Her mother sees a marked difference in her daughter in these Olympics, despite the added hype. “She seems extremely calm. She says she’s not going to bed at night and racing every race over 10 times,” Helga says. “Definitely compared to the last one, where she was a wreck, I think this is going to be better.” Salt Lake is a blur, admits Klassen. “It happened so fast, I should have taken more pictures. There were so many things that I can’t remember. There were so many new emotions.” Most of those emotions go unspoken. Klassen is a fascinating contradiction. Office, she is private, humble and low-key; doing her best, she says, to model the sense of calm and

perspective that Wotherspoon exudes. In competition, though, she’s a take-no-prisoners gal. “She has to let it out somewhere,” says her mother. “She’s a very gentle, quiet kind of person, but she’s played all kinds of sports

‘She seems extremely calm. She says she’s not going to bed at night and racing every race over 10 times.’

and she certainly didn’t let that get in the way.” Klassen is, in many ways, the polar opposite of her archrival, Germany’s Anni Friesinger. Both are ferociously focused competitors. Klassen set, lost, then regained the 1,500-m world record in a thrilling series of World Cup duels with Friesinger late last year. But while Klassen is modest, understated to the point of shyness, and clearly inspired by her Mennonite Brethren faith, the bodacious Friesinger is a Teutonic bombshell—a brilliant self-promoter and, in her bodysuit, or often out of it, a photographer’s dream.

Klassen’s faith is no small part of her success. It sustained her during a devastating injury in 2003 when she fell in turn and crashed into another skater, slicing 12 tendons, a nerve

and an artery in her right forearm. She lost a massive amount of blood. The injury threatened her career and, but for the quick response of coaches and staff, could have killed her. Even now, she has very limited movement in the baby and ring fingers of her right hand, and little sensation of heat or cold.

Klassen has called the accident “the best thing that happened to my skating career. gained a lot of perspective.” Her mother, as terrifying as the event was, doesn’t disagree. “I was quite amazed at how well she took that,” she says. “She was very content to see what God had in store for her.” Rather a lot, it might seem. Just four months later, rested and refreshed, she won two medals in the 2004 world single distances championships. The enforced break seemed to heighten her hunger to compete. As for the fresh perspective, it can only lighten the load of a nation’s hopes. M