Our Cindy's golden

TURIN -- Any need to debate who should carry the Canadian flag at the Winter Games closing ceremonies?

Didn't think so.

How about the first Canadian woman to win three medals at a single Winter Olympics?

Then again, you could go with the first person, pick a gender, to win four medals at a Games, pick a season, in Canadian Olympic history.

Or just the third Canadian to make it five medals in a career.

Either way, it keeps coming up the same.

Winnipeg's Cindy Klassen was the story coming into these Games, she's the story during them and she'll be the story long after they're done.

The 26-year-old speed skater's last 10 days read like this: bronze in the 3,000 metres, silver in the team pursuit, silver in the 1,000 and gold in yesterday's 1,500.

Most athletes wouldn't dream of a career line like that, let alone one Games.

And this from someone who used to think speed skaters looked dorky.

"I didn't even want to do it," Canada's newest Olympic champ admitted yesterday. "Because I kind of thought it looked ridiculous, with the long blades and wearing a tight skin suit. I knew my friends would kind of poke fun at me.

Couldn't have imagined

"Growing up, I couldn't have imagined being here, and speed skating."

No, it was hockey Klassen dreamed about as a kid, but that dream died when she didn't quite make the 1998 Olympic team.

Just 18, she could have easily waited until the next time.

Instead, she pulled on a pair of those long blades, zipped up one of those skin suits and let her friends poke away.

Today, she's the first athlete in Manitoba history to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic event.

"I didn't know that," Klassen said, her hour-long smile showing no more fatigue than she had on the ice. "That's cool."

It's a typical response.

Every time Klassen pens another chapter in the history books, people around her get into a lather while she shrugs, as if she's just been told the sun came up.

"It's really not something I think about too much," she said. "I'm just having such a great time, and that's what means the most to me."

Not to mention beating those skinny pants off everyone else.

Skating head-to-head with German rival Anni Friesinger, the defending gold medallist, in the second-last pairing of the day, Klassen blew Friesinger away by a full two seconds.

Her nearest competitor, teammate Kristina Groves, was nearly a second-and-a-half behind.

This was the race she'd been looking for, after being not quite satisfied with her 3,000 or 1,000.

"I woke up in the morning and felt really good," Klassen said. "Really happy. I felt more at peace. It was just a good day."

A few pre-race nerves? No big deal.

So what changed?

Klassen credited her coach, Neal Marshall, with instilling a confidence in her she couldn't quite find on her own.

And with that, she got a little misty-eyed, proving she's not just a skating machine, after all.

It was actually Klassen's second bout with the emotions, the first coming when Groves described what it's like to skate a victory lap while holding the Canadian flag.

"It's something you see other people do all the time," Klassen managed. "And to have both Kristina and I skating around with the flag was really special. We both really felt so proud to be Canadians at that moment."

Klassen will skate her fifth and final event, the 5,000, on Saturday.

No matter what happens, she's certain to get another chance to carry the Maple Leaf on Sunday.

Is there any other choice?