February 26, 2006
Nobody does it betterFlag-bearer Klassen is Canada's top Olympian
By Paul Friesen
TURIN -- As a two-year-old, she ran away from home on her tricycle, determined to see what was out there.
Today, she's a Canadian record breaker who'll carry her country's flag into the closing ceremonies at the Winter Games.
Winnipeg's Cindy Klassen, a trailblazer and risk-taker the better part of her 26 years, is once again in uncharted territory.
This time, she's carrying five new medals, something only seven other people in the world have accomplished at a single Winter Olympics.
No Canadian ever has, though. Just like no Canadian has ever won six medals in a career.
"It's been unreal," Klassen said yesterday, finally allowing herself to exhale after a two-week onslaught that saw her compete in five different events. "Coming out with five medals is awesome."
Five for five, including a bronze in yesterday's grueling 5,000 metres, by far Klassen's least-favourite event.
"Going into it, I'm always pretty nervous," she said. "Because I know how much it's going to hurt. That's what I dread the most."
If there's a challenge in front of her, though, Klassen has always attacked it, throwing caution, and fear, to the wind.
A busy street in her North Kildonan neighbourhood? No problem, she'll just pedal along it until somebody decides a two-year-old shouldn't be doing this.
Playing AAA boys hockey at 14? So what if no girl in Manitoba has ever done it.
And if she has to throw some punches to gain respect, so be it.
Same thing with speed skating. Nobody starts the sport at 18 and gets anywhere.
Klassen got to the Salt Lake City Olympics, four years later.
"It's tough to make the transition," she said. "It depends on the person, and on their genetic makeup, too."
Somebody find out what Klassen is made of, and clone it.
Because the way she's manhandled the competition at the Oval Lingotto these last two weeks must have some countries calling for a sex test.
She may be no Eric Heiden, the American who won every event he entered in 1980, but winning medals in a sprint like the 1,000 metres and an endurance test like the 5,000 is a bit like winning the 200-metre dash and the marathon.
"I thought I could maybe do well in (the 1,000), but the 5,000, I wasn't really expecting anything," she said.
As for being mentioned in the same breath as Heiden ...
"I don't really think about things like that," Klassen said. "I focused on each race individually, and luckily I was getting medals. I wasn't thinking about getting another medal, I was just thinking about putting a perfect race together."
That Klassen went a perfect five-for-five is one thing.
That she did it carrying the weight of all that expectation is another, entirely.
Billed as Canada's Queen of the Games coming in, she took to the throne as if it were her favourite easy-chair.
"Winnipeg rules," Dutch reporter Paul Rump said, after Klassen and Clara Hughes had combined for a full 25% (6 of 24) of Canada's medals at these Games.
Apparently, the pressure that cripples some athletes was just another challenge for Klassen, no more difficult to overcome than the serious arm injury she suffered two years ago. The one where a skate blade cut right to her bone, slicing nerves and tendons and leaving her without feeling in two fingers.
The legs, though, are fine.
So's the heart.
And today it'll no doubt be singing as she blazes another trail, her Canadian teammates following close behind.
For one day, at least, she's not wondering what's out there, around the next corner.
"I'm just living in the moment," she said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now."
Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or 632-2788.