Klassen 'nervous'

TURIN -- This is the one we've been waiting for, the strongest race for Canada's strongest speed skater at these Winter Olympics.

That Winnipeg's Cindy Klassen is on the precipice of Canadian history only adds to the drama.

That she's one of the gold-medal favourites only piles on the pressure.

"I'm probably going to be nervous," Klassen admitted. "I don't think the nerves ever really go away. I think you need the butterflies in your stomach to get you going."

Today's women's 1,500 metres (10 a.m.) may not be the marquee event of the Games, but it's certainly been one of the most anticipated, ever since Klassen and Germany's Anni Friesinger took turns breaking each other's world records late last year.

And get this: the randomly drawn start list released late yesterday indicates the two rivals will skate head-to-head in the second-last of 18 pairings.

Apparently, even fate wanted to see this showdown.

This is much more than a two-horse race, though.

At least five skaters have a realistic shot at the gold medal. One could even come out of nowhere to win, much like 19-year-old Dutch skater Ireen Wust did in the 3,000.

As Klassen's coach, Neal Marshall, said: "Nothing's for sure in the Olympics."

"Because it's the Olympics I'd say she's a top-three favourite, based on times," Marshall said. "Cindy set the world record by quite a bit, going in. She's posted some incredible times."

None more so than the jaw-dropping 1:51.79 she turned in at the World Cup event in Salt Lake City on Nov. 20 -- a full 1.4 seconds faster than the world record Friesinger had set in the same event.

Don't look for any all-time marks here, though, not on the relatively slow ice of the Oval Lingotto.

Squared off

For example, Klassen and Friesinger squared off here in a World Cup event in December, and both finished in the 1:57 range.

That doesn't mean this race will be any less contested.

For every stat that favours Klassen, the former hockey player, another jumps out in support of Friesinger, the 29-year-old mega-star from a German speed skating family.

Klassen holds the world record, Friesinger leads the current World Cup standings, winning gold the last two races.

Klassen won the 1,500-metre title at the last world championship, Friesinger took it the year before.

Klassen is the most decorated skater at these Games, Friesinger the defending Olympic gold medallist in the event.

Coming into the Games, Canadian TV analyst Catriona Le May Doan said Klassen was the one to beat, and nothing she's seen the last 11 days has changed her mind.

"It's been a typical Olympic Games -- everything is really tight, and there's been a few surprises," Le May Doan, the two-time gold medallist, told Sun Media yesterday. "I still think she's the favourite."

The coach, though, says his skater needs to look at it the other way.

"She has to go in with the mindset that she's the underdog, and attack it that way," Marshall said.

Attack it too hard, though, and you might not have enough gas left in the tank at the end.

That's what Klassen believes happened to her in both the 3,000, in which she won bronze, and the more recent 1,000, where she took silver.

"Some days it's there, some days it's not," she said.

"And you just don't know why. You've just got to do the best you can to prepare for it.

"Ice conditions can change from day to day. And it's a different race. In the 1,500 you're not going out as hard (as the 1,000) ... I'm hoping I can hold on better in that race."

The rest of Canada will simply hold on to their seats.

If Klassen hits the podium, she'd tie the record for most career medals (five) by any Canadian Olympian (Marc Gagnon and Phil Edwards).

She'd also become the first Canadian in history to collect four medals at a single Games.

The only thing left to determine is the colour of the brightest one.