Profile Ivanie Blondin has taken a long track to speed skating success

Concussions, depression, anorexia among obstacles faced by Ottawa native

Ivanie Blondin has taken a long track to speed skating success
Ivanie Blondin will be one of the favourites in the new mass start event which is making its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang. © Kevin Light Photography

By Chicco Nacion, CBC Sports

Canada's Ivanie Blondin heads into Pyeongchang as a multi-medal threat in long track speed skating.

And it wasn't even the first sport she laced up for.

"I found my way into figure skating and wasn't very graceful," Blondin told CBC Sports recently. "I was more of a tomboy and my coach at the time told my parents, 'You should put her into speed skating. She likes to go fast, she's really aggressive.' So they did at the age of seven and I just never looked back."

Along the way the Ottawa native dipped her toes in both short track and long track.

Blondin, 27, can remember the late-night practices indoors on the short track where her Gloucester Concordes trained, and the freezing temperatures at the outdoor long track near Carleton University.

"I think of how many hours I spent on an outdoor rink in minus-20, minus-30 weather for laps and then going into the shack to warm up my toes, on the verge of frostbite," Blondin recalled.

"It's funny thinking how much I put my body through to be able to skate outdoors. But luckily, I mostly skated short track."

Blondin excelled on the short track, qualifying for the 2004 world junior championships at the age of 14. Two years later she moved to Montreal to train with the national team with her eyes set on qualifying for the 2010 Olympics.

'I was done with speed skating'

But the four years Blondin spent there proved difficult.

While French was her first language, Blondin said she never really felt welcome and described herself as an "outsider" among her predominantly Quebecois teammates.

Her problems continued on the track, where she suffered five concussions in a three-year span and was excluded from the Olympic squad that went to Vancouver — a decision she disagrees with considering her medal performances at previous world junior championships and the Canada Winter Games.  

As Blondin struggled, depression and anorexia set in. She thought her career was finished.

"I decided to move to my parents' home in Ottawa and I was done with speed skating. Period," Blondin said.

But an intervention from Blondin's childhood coach, Mike Rivet, was all she needed to realize that she wasn't quite done yet.

Rivet told Blondin she was better suited for long track and convinced her to move to the national team's base in Calgary.

"Me being me, I had a hard time calling it quits on anything. I'm not a quitter," Blondin said. "The fact that I had quit and moved to Ottawa was unlike me. So he kind of just knocked some sense into me."

The move proved pivotal for Blondin. She immediately felt welcome and in an environment where people wanted to train with her.

She reunited with her old local club teammates, Isabelle Weidemann and Vincent De Haître, whom she jokingly chirps as her little brother on the team.

Emotional support

Blondin said the emotional support they provide is crucial to deal with the stress of competition.

And while it was support she felt she lacked in Montreal, as the years pass she's been able to view the experience through a different lens.

"It's hard for me to say that Montreal was a mistake," she said. "I grew as a person and I have tougher skin because of that … it makes a huge difference just being surrounded by people that have your back."

If anything, Blondin's background in short track has given her an edge in the new mass start event that make its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang.

The 16-lap race involves 24 skaters fighting for position with points awarded for three intermediate sprints during the race and the final sprint to the finish.

For the past five seasons, she's finished in the top five in the event's overall World Cup rankings — including first in the 2014-15 season — and has gold and silver medals from the world championships.

With her mix of endurance, sprint speed, and physicality, Blondin has developed into a consistent threat on the circuit.

"I found success from day one. I'm built for it," she said. "I've got the long distance, can sprint for the final sprint, and just being aggressive — those are my fortes. It's an environment I'm really comfortable in."

Relieving some pressure

Blondin will also race the 3,000 and 5,000 metres, and team pursuit events, but she's not thinking about all of that.

Blondin's experience in Sochi taught her to focus on the process rather than results and she believes that's been a huge part of her success.

Off the ice, Blondin finds time to kayak and water ski because it can't be all about speed skating.

She says you need to enjoy life and to do that, you can't allow yourself to be consumed by your sport.

"I think that takes away from the pressure of being a speed skater and just focusing on skating," Blondin said. "The more things you do outside [your sport], the better an athlete you can be."