Valérie Maltais no longer afraid to skate into Olympic limelight
Short track veteran approaching Olympics with more confidence
Just like in Vancouver, she will be the youngest member of the Canadian women’s short track speed skating team at the Sochi Olympic Games. But this time, Valérie Maltais will no longer be relegated in a dark corner.
In 2010, the Quebecer was the only short track woman to leave Vancouver without a medal. The women’s team relay won silver, but Maltais had not been invited to skate in the final, nor in the semifinal. Paralyzed by nerves, she had to be content with her 14th-place finish in the 1,500 metres, the only individual distance that she raced.
It wasn’t easy to turn the page. But once she digested the disappointment and re-evaluated what happened, Maltais decided to roll up her sleeves and get to work.
“I needed a little break, so I took a month off. I returned to Saguenay, Quebec, and then went to Mexico for a vacation. I came back to training and turned my disappointment into motivation to do everything I could to reach my goal: a podium, a gold medal at the Olympic Games”, said the 23-year-old skater.
A member of the national team for six years, Maltais recognized back then that she sometimes had a hard time finding her place in a group that was full of strong personalities such as veteran Tania Vicent, thoroughbred Kalyna Roberge and young - but extroverted - Marianne St-Gelais.
“Sure I had a spot on the team, but I did not express myself very much," she said. "If I had something to say, I wouldn’t say it. It was a bit difficult to express how I felt. It’s not that the others were bullies, but I think that I just wasn’t comfortable. I was afraid to say what I felt. Now, I have enough confidence to say that I belong to the team.”
In a sport where team spirit is of paramount importance, her frequent mood swings did not help her either. Leg pains, headaches, all the excuses were good to get off the ice when the practice wasn’t going well.
Hence, former coach Sébastien Cros’s decision to leave her on the bench for the semifinal in Vancouver.
Since then, the impulsive and reserved Maltais learned to better manage what she calls her “difficult character."
“I think it’s a matter of maturity. I’ve learnt to know myself better. I’ve also learnt to better prepare myself for a race, to have more tools in my pocket to know what to do in different circumstances," said the 2012 world silver medallist.
Ironically, Cros’s departure for Russia at the end of the 2012 season was a triggering moment in Maltais’s career.
“I’ve learnt to work more independently instead of just leaving it all to my trainer. The trainer is, somehow, an accessory to your success. When my trainer is not breathing down my neck, I can work on my own, take the elements that he taught me and make adjustments”, said Maltais, who in her spare time loves to go roller-blading.
This more confident, more mature, more motivated version of Maltais imposed herself as the best Canadian skater in the past two years, not only at the 1,000m and 1,500m, her favourite distances, but also on the 500m.
In august, she dominated the Olympic Trials by winning six of the nine events in the program. More and more at ease at the front of the pack, the six-time career World Cup medallist has often led her races from start to finish, a strategy that she’s working to refine for the Games.
“At the trials, I knew the strength of my opponents because we had been training together all summer long. I knew that I could do it. At the international level, it’s a bit different.
Last year, I spent more time at the front and I think that it’s a strategy that works well for me. I have to learn to change my laps and to better control my speed, but I think that this could be a good strategy," said Maltais, who won silver in the 1,500m at the last World Cup event of the season in Kolomna, Russia.
Maltais doesn’t hide her goal: in Sochi, she wants to skate all three individual distances…because it means three more chances to get on the podium.
And should she not achieve her goal this time, she can always try again in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018, or even in 2022, as long as her “body holds up”.
This story has been translated from French and edited by CBC Sports