Olympic preview: Canada in transition in long track speed skating
Christine Nesbitt, Denny Morrison have challenges to overcome
Christine Nesbitt heads into the Sochi Olympics as the defending champion at 1,000 metres, but few expect the long track speed skater to repeat as gold medal winner based on this season’s results.
The London, Ont., native talked ahead of the season about enjoying the Olympic experience and not stressing over things, but that may not be an easy task as she's been nowhere near the podium on the World Cup circuit. Nesbitt’s fifth place showings in two races at the sprint championships in Japan in January are more encouraging, but it’s also true that three of the world’s best skaters did not compete at that meet.
Nesbitt has nothing to prove in a certain sense after winning two career Olympic medals and dominating the sport in 2011 and 2012, but the legacy of many an athlete’s career has been enhanced by responding well to the kind of adversity she currently faces.
"When things aren’t good, when she's mad or angry, she seems to rise up and find another gear," said Kristina Groves, former teammate and CBC long track analyst for the Games.
Nesbitt has gone from star performer on a group laden with talented veterans, to the leader of a Canadian team in transition.
Canada won eight medals in long track at Turin in 2006 and five more at Vancouver. On each occasion, two of the medals were golden.
This time around, Canada could win as many as three long track medals, but there’s also a small chance the team is completely shut out.
On the men's side, Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., has two Olympic team medals to his credit, but he could be hard pressed in his bid to win a first individual medal.
Morrison, who’s come all the way back after breaking a bone in his leg in December 2012, is sixth in the 1,000 standings. Unfortunately, that’s the distance he failed to qualify in at the Olympic trials due to a mishap. He qualified for the 1,500, a distance where he’s won two gold medals at the world championships in the past, but in which he ranks just 14th overall this season.
Calgary natives Gilmore Junio and Jamie Gregg have been on the World Cup podium at 500 metres, making them potential medallists in what may be the most fiercely contested event in Olympic long track, as 11 different men have accounted for the 24 podium finishes on the World Cup circuit this season.
If Junio can't do it himself, he knows who he'll be rooting for.
"Since I joined the team [Jamie's] been the sprinter I looked up to the most and tried to catch for years," he told CBC Sports. "Especially over the past two years we’ve had this relationship of trading off races now. He’s definitely one of those skaters that can step up at the big races."
Brittany Schussler of Winnipeg reached the podium in the 1,500 this season, but at the Astana, Kazakhstan stop in which a few of the world’s most consistent medal threats did not compete.
Morrison, Mathieu Giroux of Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., and Lucas Makowsky of Regina are defending Olympic team pursuit champs but will do well to just reach the bottom part of the podium this time, given the strength of the Netherlands, Norway, United States and South Korea.
The Canadian women's team of Nesbitt, Schussler and Kali Christ of Regina arguably have a stronger chance at a medal. They are third in the World Cup women’s pursuit after three races this season, with a silver medal to their credit.
In individual events Canada qualified four racers each in the men's and women's distances from 500 to 1,500. There are two spots in women's 3,000, and one each for men and women in the 5,000. No Canadians qualified in the men's 10,000.
While it may not end up being the most fruitful of Winter Games compared to recent history, it will be an important event for the development of the team.
Junio is among nine of 17 team members who are under the age of 25, with Vincent De Haître of Cumberland, Ont., the youngest at just 19 years old.
Not so fast track?
Canadian individuals or teams still hold five world records in the sport. One silver lining is that given the fact that Adler Arena is at sea level and not altitude where air resistance is lighter, there is not expected to be an onslaught of new world records being set at the Sochi competition.
Olympic long track schedule:
- Saturday, Feb. 8: Men's 5,000
- Sunday, Feb. 9: Women's 3,000
- Monday, Feb. 10: Men's 500
- Tuesday, Feb. 11: Women's 500
- Wednesday, Feb. 12: Men's 1,000
- Thursday, Feb. 13: Women's 1,000
- Saturday, Feb. 15: Men's 1,500
- Sunday, Feb. 16: Women's 1500
- Tuesday, Feb. 18: Men's 10,000
- Wednesday, Feb. 19: Women's 5,000
- Friday Feb. 21: Team pursuit qualification
- Saturday, Feb. 22: Team pursuit semis, final