For more than three decades Canadian speed skaters from across the country have made their way to the Olympic Oval in Calgary, the mecca of the sport in this country. It’s a place laced with history, prestige and legacy.
A place that signified you’d made it in the sport in Canada, where Olympic records and gold medals rose from what many call the best ice on the planet.
Larger than life banners hang from the ceiling, highlighting past giants who have etched themselves into Canadian speed skating lore. Cindy Klassen, Jeremy Wotherspoon, Catriona Le May Doan, Clara Hughes, Kevin Crockett and Susan Auch look down on the ice, a constant reminder of the greatness that has existed in the speed skating program.
Now, with just one year to go until the Beijing Olympics, the current crop of Canadian speed skaters are hoping to become part of that same elite company, motivated, inspired and pushing themselves to extremes on the backs of those greats who have come before them.
“Cindy has always been someone I’ve aspired to be. She’s always been someone I’ve looked up to in speed skating,” Ivanie Blondin told CBC Sports. “The history here.”
Blondin talks about Klassen in the most glowing ways. How could she not? Klassen skated to five medals for Canada at the 2006 Olympics — one gold, two silver and two bronze — making her one of only nine Winter Olympians worldwide, and the only Canadian in either summer or winter sport, to win five medals at a single edition of the Games.
Blondin wants that for herself. She’s a leader on the team now, ready to carry that weight into the next Games.
Klassen’s unforgettable performance 15 years ago fuels Blondin’s training today. The 30-year-old from Ottawa is a high-powered superstar in the sport who is targeting greatness in Beijing.
Blondin was not happy with her performance at the last Olympics, where she failed to win a medal. And so since then she’s been pushing herself harder than ever to ensure it doesn’t happen again on that big stage.
But what happens when a pandemic hits and to make matters worse, the ice-making machinery at the Calgary Oval breaks down? That’s exactly what happened this past September. Blondin’s training place, along with the rest of the team trying to build for Beijing, shut down.
“It’s [lousy] we didn’t have the ice in Calgary. We lost access to all our facilities,” she said. “I guess we should just be grateful this isn’t the Olympic season.”
The Olympics are coming, faster than many of the athletes want to think about.The speed skaters aren’t the only ones scrambling to continue preparations. In the early days of the pandemic, many of the winter athletes felt as though they’d escape its grip with Beijing almost two years away. That grip has tightened and the athletes are feeling the squeeze now, pressured to come up with ways just to keep training.
“We had no weight room. No track. Every week there was something new,” Blondin said. “The main issue was not having ice.”
So the team had to get back to their humble beginnings.
The story of Canada’s most prolific speed skaters, including Blondin, all have similar and simple starting points — icy, sometimes bumpy, outdoor ovals in cities dotting the frozen tundra.
Canadian Olympic speed skating heroes would battle the elements in their formative years, zipping around in skinsuits hoping to avoid getting blown over by swirling wind gusts or getting frostbite, striding counter-clockwise in an attempt to cross the line first.
WATCH | Blondin captures gold in mass start:
Learning how to battle the elements, be creative and persevere was as much a part of the competition when they first started as learning how to be powerful striders.
“Skating outdoors in a skinsuit in the winter, as small as I am, the wind was pushing me around,” Blondin said, recalling her early days in Ottawa.
It wasn’t until they had mastered their sport outdoors they could take their skill and strength indoors, to the oval in Calgary, to begin their pursuit of greatness.
Canada’s long track speed skating program is steeped in history — 37 Olympic medals tallied over the course of all the Games, more than any other Canadian winter sport program. The current team is coming off one of the program’s strongest seasons to date. With 31 World Cup medals, momentum and confidence was at an all-time high. And as they looked ahead to this year, an important year in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the goals for what they could achieve seemed limitless.
I actually really, really enjoyed skating outside. It was cold sometimes but I grew up skating outside in Ottawa. It felt like home to me.– Isabelle Weidemann
Then the pandemic hit. And everything stopped. So they went back outside, taking to the outdoor oval in Red Deer, Alta. as well as Gap Lake, near Calgary, just to get some valuable ice time during the course of a seemingly incessant pandemic.
“I actually really, really enjoyed skating outside. It was cold sometimes but I grew up skating outside in Ottawa. It felt like home to me,” Isabelle Weidemann said. “We never race outside anymore. So I can take those aspects and then come inside and in some ways it’s making it feel really easy because I’ve been doing this harder work outside.”
WATCH | Training on Gap Lake
Weidemann, 25, is hoping to make it to her second Olympics. She was one of the younger members of the team in PyeongChang, also disappointed by her performance in 2018.
“I have some unresolved goals from the last Games. I don’t feel I skated to my potential,” she said. “I want to perform at my best and show Canada what I’ve been working on. All the hard training.”
The skaters are sick and tired of training — don’t get it wrong, they understand the value of it, but it’s all they’ve had over the last number of months. Now they want to put it to test. They’re leaning on each other more than ever to get through what has been nothing short of a horrible year.
“It’s been really frustrating for me not to be skating,” Ted-Jan Bloemen said. “For me, the periods where I’m not skating, I bridge those periods knowing I will skate again.”
Nothing that resembled normalcy
But for the last number of months Bloemen and the rest of the Canadian skaters haven’t known when they might skate again. Outside of a two-week stint on the Fort St. John’s oval this past fall, there’s been nothing that’s resembled any normalcy.
“I’ve been through some really difficult times this winter. I’m doing much better now but there were dark times. And I’m not the only one,” Bloemen said.
It’s been quite the journey for Bloemen. If there’s anyone on the Canadian team who fully understands the prestige and history of speed skating, it’s him. Bloemen was born and raised in the Netherlands, the birthplace of the sport. He’s back there right now with other members of the team, competing in a bubble in Heerenveen about 90 minutes from where he grew up, in Leiderdorp.
The deep roots of ice skating date back more than 1,000 years to the waterways of Scandinavia and the Netherlands. In those days people laced animal bones to their footwear and glided across frozen lakes and rivers. To be a prolific speed skater adorned in the traditional bright orange Dutch colours is what everyone in Holland dreams of, in the same way many young children in Canada dream of one day hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Bloemen wanted to be one of those great skaters for his home country but was never able to break through. The pressure to make the team was suffocating. He never felt he got a fair chance in their program.
I didn’t want to be a Dutch guy skating for another country. I’m a Canadian and I’m really proud to be representing this country.– Ted-Jan Bloemen
So in 2014, Bloemen made the biggest move of his life. His father is Canadian, born in New Brunswick, which allowed Bloemen to obtain dual citizenship, move to Calgary and start skating for a country that for years was only known as his competition.
“I didn’t want to be a Dutch guy skating for another country. I’m a Canadian and I’m really proud to be representing this country,” he said.
The move was the turning point he needed. Four years later, aged 31 and at his first Olympics, he skated to silver in the men’s 5,000 metres. It was Canada’s first Olympic medal in the men’s event since Willy Logan won bronze in Lake Placid in 1932.
The best, though, was yet to come. Days after that performance, Bloemen won Canada’s first gold in the men’s 10,000 metres. And he did it in an Olympic record time of 12 minutes 39.77 seconds, well ahead of his Dutch rival Sven Kramer.
“I’m just really proud and really lucky. I feel like it’s a really big honour to be the one representing Canada now and being in the spotlight and executing the race,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that. And I know I’m just a link in this great team.”
Young star Graeme Fish
With just one year to go to another Olympics, Bloemen is stressing the importance of team at more than any other time in his career. It’s taken him years to understand that despite the naturally individualistic nature of speed skating, he’s only been able to ascend to greatness because of those who are around him.
One of the young stars pushing Bloemen is Moose Jaw, Sask., speed skater Graeme Fish. At 23 years old, he’s tracking to be one of the best male skaters this country has ever produced.
Last February, Fish set the 10,000m world record and captured the world championship title. It’s a nearly unfathomable result considering Fish didn’t move to Calgary to take up speed skating seriously until he was 18. In four years he went from being lapped by Bloemen in that same race distance, to passing him and setting the world record.
WATCH | Graeme Fish sets world record:
“He destroyed me. It was unbelievable,” Fish recalled, remembering a 2017 race. “And then when Ted won in 2018 I was in awe. Now I’m training with him.”
He’s been emulating everything Bloemen has been doing on the ice ever since. And then just three short years later set the world record — a direct reflection of being able to skate with someone who was pushing him every day.
“We all support each other and every time we step on the ice we want to beat each other. We learn from each other. I’m skating with the Olympic champion,” Fish said.
Add Jordan Belchos to this mix, and this trio of speed skating Canadians becomes scary in a hurry as they continue to push each other to the edge.
It’s a dynamic two-time Olympic champion Catriona Le May Doan knows all about. Born and raised in Saskatoon, Le May Doan also started her career on an outdoor oval. In the early 1990s she burst onto the speed skating scene and was trending toward a medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
In the lead up to those Olympics, Le May Doan recalls how much skating partner Susan Auch pushed her.
“We were a tight-knit team. They were all like my family. We used to spend 10 weeks at a time in Europe. We helped each other. We pushed each other,” said Le May Doan, who will serve as Canada’s chef de mission in Beijing, 20 years after winning her second career gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
But in 1994, in her specialty race, Le May Doan fell in the 500m. Auch placed second. That silver medal was Canada’s only medal in speed skating during those Games.
Le May Doan was not going to let that fall define her. And as a team, the Canadian speed skaters spent the next four years relentlessly training, vowing to grab more medals in Nagano.
They lived up to their promise. The Canadians put on a memorable show during those 1998 Olympics in Japan, racking up five medals on the long track, the largest single medal haul at the Games to that point.
Le May Doan won gold in the 500m, doing so with an Olympic record time. She also got bronze in the 1000m. Auch once again got silver in the 500m. Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kevin Overland also brought home medals for Canada.
Everybody needs to want each other to succeed. You push each other. That’s what we had and that’s what this current team has.– Catriona Le May Doan
“The team needs to believe. You need to believe. You have to get perspective,” Le May Doan said. “Everybody needs to want each other to succeed. You push each other. That’s what we had and that’s what this current team has.”
When Canadian speed skaters have leaned into the weight of all they are collectively, they can be one of the most powerful teams on the planet.
Take for instance that historic 2006 medal haul in Italy. The Canadians skated to eight medals during those Turin Games, thanks largely to the unforgettable performance of Cindy Klassen.
But she was pushed to that greatness because of teammates like Kristina Groves and Clara Hughes — during those same Games Hughes grabbed gold in the 5000m and Groves silver behind Klassen in the 1500m. There was a high level of competition between them and also an understanding they were making each other better.
A somewhat similar team followed up that performance with five more Olympic medals in 2010 on home soil in Vancouver. But since those two Games in which speed skaters from Canada produced 13 medals, there has been a steep decline.
There have been just four medals between the Games in Sochi and Pyeongchang Olympics. And it was Denny Morrison and Bloemen who were responsible for them.
Many skaters on those teams have talked about how siloed and segregated they were. Because here’s the thing about long track speed skating: there are sprinters. There are the longer distance skaters. There are obviously men’s skaters and women’s skaters. When you start to splinter these groups, things quickly become isolating. And that’s what had happened.
“You were in groups and there were rivalries. The team didn’t mesh together. But last year, I don’t know what it was. All the groups started meshing together,” Blondin said. “The team was just like a family. It was fun to be around your teammates. We really grew last year as a team and I think that showed in the performances.”
‘Team is so crucial’
They’ve gotten back to those glory days when it was one unified group all wanting the best for one another.
“Team is so crucial. And last season was the perfect example of that,” Blondin said. “You need your team around you to motivate you.”
This past week, in the Dutch bubble, in her first competitive race in more than 10 months, Blondin alongside Weidemann and Valérie Maltais captured gold in the team pursuit. She followed it up with a silver in the mass start event. And on Friday, the trio took gold and set a track record in the women’s team pursuit.
Even Blondin was surprised by the performance, having told CBC Sports prior to the race that no one should expect podium finishes having been away from the ice for such a long time.
It was hard during the summer because in a way we went back to our old ways. You couldn’t train together. As soon as we got back together that all went away– Ivanie Blondin
She brought it back to the team dynamic again.
“It was hard during the summer because in a way we went back to our old ways. You couldn’t train together,” she said. “As soon as we got back together that all went away.”
A team that was ripped apart by the pandemic. That comfort and support had been taken away from the speed skaters, spending the summer and fall months mostly training alone.
Most of the team is all together again, cooped up in a Dutch hotel preparing for a number of World Cup and world championship races. It’s familiar. Their own speed skating bubble.
And while they may not have the performances they’d expect under normal circumstances right now, there’s something calming and reassuring about all being in the same place at the same time together again.
As a team, they’re trusting the process. And they know they’ll be ready when Beijing arrives — with a reminder from their most recent Olympic champion.
“I still have that feeling,” Bloemen said. “What’s important is to make the best of what we got. And be confident we can execute at the Olympics.”