February 8, 2006
Diamond in rough in early days
PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

Anne Mushumanski will never forget the first time Cindy Klassen tried speed skating.

Let's just say the future Olympian didn't exactly look like a future Olympian -- starting with the way she was dressed.

"In her hockey helmet and her hockey gloves," is how Mushumanski, a coach at the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club, remembers it.

Then Klassen put on her skates and looked even more out of place.

"She's a very natural athlete, and when she got on the ice she figured this wouldn't be a big deal," former coach Lori Derraugh recalls. "And I remember her just being so embarrassed, because all these little kids are just zipping by her."

Klassen had played hockey her whole life, reaching the AAA bantam boys' level, the Canadian junior women's team, even contending for a spot on the women's Olympic team.

So how hard could it be?

"I remember stepping onto the ice and thinking I was just going to fly around, that it would be like hockey, just faster," Klassen says, still laughing about it. "And when I could barely stand up on the blades, and little five-year-old kids were flying past me, it was a very humbling experience."

Now, a lot of people would have quit, right then and there.

FOUR-LETTER WORD

But that word doesn't appear to be in this Winnipegger's vocabulary. At the very least, it's a four-letter word, and everybody knows a God-fearing student at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate doesn't use those.

No, the only thing overriding Klassen's embarrassment that day was her determination to get better.

"She was eager to learn," Mushumanski says. "She gobbled it up.

Mushumanski and Derraugh saw something else in Klassen, too -- a natural power that most skaters don't have. It didn't take long for them to realize this newcomer might just be going places.

"We knew she was something special, in terms of her ability," Derraugh says. "She's got what it takes. Her work ethic is unbelievable. It didn't matter how cold it was or whether there was a lot of snow that day. She's just the type that would always be there and would probably get the shovel out and get everybody to clear the rink."

Klassen was so self-conscious about her lack of ability early on, she told her parents not to come out to watch her first competition.

"We actually snuck into a race once," her mom, Helga, says.

By the following winter, Klassen had improved so dramatically she earned a spot on the national team for the world junior championship.

Oh, and she brought home gold and bronze medals, too.

At 26, Klassen doesn't even resemble the skater she was eight years ago.

Her coaches, though, say she's exactly the same person.

"She has not changed, let me tell you, from the first day she started," Mushumanski says. "She's still a nice, sincere person. All this being a world champion and everything, the medals, have not changed her."







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