Speed Skating

Steve Armitage - Friday Jan. 24, 2014 15:42 ET

Canadian speed skating team not likely to match recent medal hauls

Christine Nesbitt struggling, but men could strike at 500 metres

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Gilmore Junio tied for first in Salt Lake City early this season, and is one of a handful of Canadian medal contenders in long track. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Since the Winter Olympics began in 1924, Canadian long track speed skaters have won 33 medals.

With the Winter Games in Sochi just about to begin, will that success on oval ice continue?

Canadian women have accounted for 21 of the 33 medals. Kathy Priestner, Susan Auch and Catriona LeMay Doan helped establish the modern legacy, continued by Cindy Klassen, Kristina Groves and Clara Hughes.

Is there anyone in the wings on the women’s side ready to take up the slack and win medals. The short answer is no.

Christine Nesbitt goes to Sochi as the defending Olympic champion in the 1,000 metres. Defending gold is tough, just ask LeMay Doan, as she’s the only Canadian athlete at this point in any sport to successfully retain an Olympic title.

The London, Ont., native dominated the 1,000 for a couple of seasons on the World Cup circuit and at the world single distance championships.  

So why will it be so tough to defend ? Still only 28, she is not considered “old” at that distance, but time catches up with all racers at some point. Just over a year ago Nesbitt was diagnosed with celiac disease, which affects the ability of the intestines to absorb key nutrients, like protein, fat, carbs, vitamins and minerals, all necessary to produce energy. And energy equates to speed.

Nesbitt has received excellent treatment but her lack of success maybe explained by the change in lifestyle and diet. She competed in only two of the four World Cups this season and did not reach the podium, which she owned until recently. She was ninth at the recent world sprint championships in Japan. Her technique is still there, but her confidence that was once rock solid appears to have slipped.

She goes to Sochi ranked 19th in the World Cup standings and the favourites will now be Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe of the U.S., Dutch skaters Ireen Wust and Margot Boer, and Russia’s Olga Fatkulina. All of those skaters Nesbitt has handled with ease in the past, but no longer.

One of the notable differences in Sochi will be in the women’s 3,000 and 5,000. With the retirement of Groves and Hughes, and Klassen not competing, Canada does not have a medal contender. Brittany Schussler of Winnipeg is ranked ninth in the World Cup standings and is a key member of the women’s pursuit team, but will not challenge for the podium individually.

Morrison down to single individual event

Individually, Canadian men haven't reached the podium in long track speed skating at the Olympics since Jeremy Wotherspoon (silver) and Kevin Overland (bronze) in 1998 in Nagano. Before that, Gaetan Boucher is the only other Canadian to win medals since 1952. He captured two gold and a bronze total at the Lake Placid and Sarajevo Olympics.

Jamie Gregg and Gilmore Junio both reached the World Cup podium this season and have a legitimate shot in the 500 metres, but Canadian men traditionally have struggled in the longer distances, and that will continue in Russia.

Both Gregg and Junio passed on the last two World Cups of 2013 and the sprints last week in Nagano. Sometimes the strategy of “tapering” works and sometimes it backfires.

There have been seven different winners in the 500 on the World Cup this season, leading some to suggest the event is wide open. Michel Mulder is hoping to give the Dutch a gold medal for the first time ever in the distance. Mo Tae Bum of South Korea, the defending Olympic champion and Keiichiro Nagashima of Japan, Olympic silver medallist and a two-time winner this season on the World Cup circuit, also contend. 

Denny Morrison, who missed a chance to qualify for the 1,000 at the Canadian trials in Calgary when he fell 50 metres from the line, will skate the 1,500 in Sochi.  The Fort St.John, B.C. native, who has come back from a broken leg last year, has not had a great deal of success at the Olympics individually but will be motivated to change that in his third Olympics.

Morrison will once again be counted upon to lead the Canadian men’s team pursuit in defence of the gold medal they won in 2010. Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux are both back but the difference this time around is the fact that the trio hasn't trained as much as a team as they did prior to Vancouver. The Dutch, with Sven Kramer leading the team, will be the prohibitive favourites to win the team pursuit in Russia.

Team pursuit a gamble

The women's team pursuit finished a disappointing fifth at the Richmond Oval in Vancouver in 2010 and will find it difficult to replace the experience and talent of Groves.

Nesbitt and Schussler return for Sochi but the third skater will be key, and that could be Ivanie Blondin, the 23-year-old from Ottawa.

Team pursuit is a bit of a gamble. Win the round and you keep skating for a medal. Lose, like the Canadians did in Vancouver and you drop down and skate for fourth or fifth.

Canadian skaters won five medals in Vancouver and eight in Turin in 2006. Those numbers will be hard if not impossible to match in Russia.

The Canadian team does not have the depth of the Dutch, and Speed Skating Canada is finding out, as most amateur sports groups eventually do, skaters like Jeremy Wotherspoon and Catriona LeMay Doan are very hard to replace.

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