Speed Skating

Chris Iorfida - Friday Nov. 8, 2013 08:31 ET

Canadian women look to shine at World Cup speed skating opener

Team in transition from last Olympic season

Kali Christ, already assured of competing at the Sochi Games, is part of the changing face of the women's speed skating team. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Speed skaters from around the world will be targeting the Sochi Olympics when they compete at the first World Cup stop of the season, to be held this weekend in Calgary.

The results of each of the first World Cup meets will determine how many skaters countries can send to the Games. But Calgary, and next week's stop in Salt Lake City, are especially crucial: every current World Cup record has been set on the fast ice of the tracks there, all within the last eight years.

It’s also crucial for Christine Nesbitt, who leads the Canadian team and will compete at the 2014 Olympics. After winning gold in the 1,000 metres at the Vancouver Olympics, the London, Ont., native dominated international competition. She made the podium in every 1,000-metre and 1,500-metre race in 2011-12, andranked first overall in the 1,000 and 1,500. She also set a world record in that distance on the Calgary Oval in January 2012.

Nesbitt ceded some ground in the 2012-13 season, however, to emerging challengers including Ireen Wust of the Netherlands, and Americans Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson. So the Canadian will want to serve notice that she's again the one to beat.

"I definitely respect [Christine] because she can congratulate you if you beat her, and then, was it last season that she won almost every thousand? That’s pretty impressive, to go out and win every 1,000," said Richardson, who recorded two wins at Calgary’s Olympic Oval in the 1,000 last season.

Kristina Groves, who won silver in the 1,500 in Vancouver, is confident that her former teammate will respond to the increased competition.

"When things aren’t good, when she's mad or angry, she seems to rise up and find another gear," said Groves, who is now a speed skating analyst for CBC Sports.

Nesbitt isn’t the only one facing pressure.

Kali Christ of Regina, who's already booked a spot in the 1,500 for Sochi, will look to follow up on a strong finish to the 2012-13 season.

"Yeah, I'd say there's a bit more pressure for sure," said Christ, who's in thanks to a fifth place at the World Single Distance Championships on the Sochi track in March. "I'm not kind of an underdog anymore. So it's different but, I mean as long as I focus on what I need to do, I think I can get through it."

For many years the spotlight shone primarily on Canada’s Olympic champions, such as Groves and Clara Hughes, who have retired, and Cindy Klassen, now competing in her 14th international senior season.

Christ and Ivanie Blondin -- who came first in the 3,000 at the recent Canadian team trials -- represent the changing face of the Canadian women's team behind Nesbitt this Olympic year.

Christ and Blondin are still relative newcomers to the sport, after starting in short track, which means their time to fully realize their potential could be closer to the 2018 Olympics. They, along with Nesbitt and Brittany Schussler, who has said this season could be her last, will form the women's pursuit team.

The Calgary competition will feature races at 500, 1,000, and 1,500 metres for both men and women, the 3,000 for women and 5,000 for men, as well as the team pursuit events.

CBC Sports will have television coverage of the World Cup stop on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET and Sunday at 4 p.m. ET. The competition can also be streamed at CBCSports.ca atSaturday at 5 p.m. ET and Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.

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