February 8, 2006
Another hill to climb
Winnipeg's Klassen ready to heat up Olys
PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

"Am I going to die?" a bleeding Cindy Klassen asked, as blood spurted from a deep gash in her right arm.

It was Oct. 27, 2003, and the world-renowned speed skater from Winnipeg had crashed into another skater during a training run at the Calgary Oval.

Her forearm cut to the bone by a skate blade, Klassen was afraid.

It turns out that's a rare occasion.

Whether bolting from home as a two-year-old, getting stuck on a cliff near her parents' cottage or exchanging punches in a hockey fight -- with a boy, no less -- it seems Klassen and fear have always been virtual strangers.

It's a trait that should serve the 26-year-old well over the next two weeks.

Klassen goes into the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, as one of this country's top medal hopes, a contender in all four of her individual events, plus the team pursuit.

She could, conceivably, return home as one of the most decorated athletes in Canadian Olympic history.

Don't forget she already has a bronze medal in her trophy case from Salt Lake City and that she'll still be in her prime for Vancouver 2010.

We can't know exactly what Klassen's future holds, but a look at her past can at least show us how she got to the present.

This, then, is the story of how a tomboy who hated playing girls' sports became the Fastest Woman on Ice. A story that begins on the dry pavement of North Kildonan, on a driveway that, to an adventurous two-year-old, was the gateway to the world.

IT'S FUNNY, NOW

"She ran away from home on that thing," Helga Klassen says, pointing to a photograph of her daughter, Cindy, on a tricycle, at age two.

The story is funny now, but Klassen wasn't laughing the day her daughter disappeared for an hour.

She wouldn't have been impressed, either, had she known Cindy was pedalling across busy streets a few blocks from home.

"The whole neighbourhood was looking for her," Cindy's father, Jake, recalls. "She didn't care. Some guy took her off the street and put her back on the sidewalk."

Well-worn paths, though, weren't for Cindy. Her parents didn't know it at the time, but this girl, the oldest of four kids, was going to be a trailblazer in more ways than one.

"I love adventures," Cindy explains. "It probably started when I was two. I always wanted to know what was over the next hill."

Of course, that occasionally got her into trouble. Like the time she didn't quite make it over that next hill.

Klassen and some friends were exploring the woods near the family cottage at Nopiming Provincial Park one day. Led by Cindy, no doubt, they went a little too far, getting stuck up on a high ridge, with no way to turn back.

Once again, mom and dad had to go searching for their daredevil daughter.

"I wasn't scared that I was going to fall," Cindy says. "But I didn't know if anybody would come and get us."

Klassen still accompanies her parents to the same cottage. When she leaves her training base in Calgary to come home, her mom says she wants to head straight for the lake.

FAVOURITE PLACE

There, you'll find her on a dirt bike or on water skis or perhaps fishing or taking pictures of some newly discovered wild blueberry patch.

Some days, she'd just as soon nobody found her.

"That's my favourite place in the world," Cindy says. "I just love the solitude. It's kind of in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is an hour away. I just love being out in nature."

That quiet side of Klassen belies the competitive fire that drives her as an athlete.

First of all, she's a natural, excelling at virtually everything she's tried: hockey, soccer, volleyball, basketball, rugby, softball, field lacrosse, cycling, in-line skating -- you name it.

"She'd try anything once," Jake says. "There was just no end to it."

It didn't take long for Cindy's parents to notice something about her playmates: they were always boys. Apparently, girls just weren't competitive enough for someone who took her sports very seriously.

"She didn't like playing with girls," Helga says, pointing out a photo that shows a grumpy-looking Cindy posing with a girls soccer team.

How much of a tomboy was Klassen?

She didn't even like the uniform she had to wear to join Team Canada's field lacrosse squad for the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

"We teased her about that," Helga remembers. "It was probably the only time she ever wore a skirt."

Today, Klassen giggles about her tomboy days, saying she just wanted to spend time with her friends, who just happened to be boys.

"I didn't really like playing with girls that much, because they would be playing with Barbies and stuff like that, and I just wasn't into things like that," Cindy says. "All my friends were boys. And they all played sports."

While boys were her constant companions, Klassen's first love was hockey.

Beginning on the driveway or in the backyard rink her dad built, she took to the game instantly, graduating to street hockey games, then organized hockey at Gateway Community Club.

By the time she was 14, she was playing at the AAA bantam boys level, unheard of at the time.

"She was the first girl to be playing AAA hockey in Winnipeg," Diane Woods of the Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association says. "Cindy was the trailblazer. And she certainly played well."

Good enough to play in the league all-star game.

And if anybody thought the only girl in the league could be intimidated, they had another thing coming.

"She never backed out of a fight," her dad says.

By the time Klassen was 16, though, the physical side of boys' hockey had become too demanding, and she switched to the women's game.

By then she had her sights set clearly on a target, too: the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, which would mark the debut of Olympic women's hockey.

Little did she know destiny had something entirely different in mind.

'SHE WAS GIFTED'

In the mid-1990s, Shannon Miller was a coach with the Team Canada women's hockey program, and during one particular scouting trip she came to Winnipeg looking for young talent.

Two local girls caught her eye that day: Jennifer Botterill, a hard-working forward, and a powerful skater playing defence named Cindy Klassen.

"She was gifted, that's for sure," Miller says of Klassen. "And a smart player ... good hockey sense. The kind of stuff that's tough to teach."

Miller was in the process of establishing the high-performance training centre in Calgary, and she invited both Botterill and Klassen to have a look-see, hoping they'd move to Calgary for their Grade 12 years.

"They were both very interested, so they both made a trip to Calgary to check it all out," Miller recalls. "In the end, Cindy Klassen chose not to come, and she went back to Winnipeg. It's really interesting, because that's a fairly defining moment in their lives."

Actually, Klassen wasn't quite ready to call it that. She still had designs on cracking the national team in time for the Olympics; she just didn't want to move to Calgary.

Instead, she attended a training camp from which five girls would be chosen to attend Team Canada's main Olympic tryout camp.

She had a great camp, and her hopes were sky-high.

Then came the phone call that changed her life: Cindy hadn't made the cut.

"It was the end of the world," her mom recalls. "It shattered her."

Everything she'd worked so hard for was gone. Her Olympic dream, dashed.

"I'm pretty sure I cried," Klassen says. "Because I expected to make it. It was pretty hard on me. It's something I'd dreamed of my whole life."

While Botterill went on to crack the Team Canada lineup, Klassen watched the Games on TV from her North Kildonan home.

She watched the women's hockey team settle for a silver medal in Nagano, but it was another silver medal performance that really captured her imagination.

ANOTHER HILL

Fellow Winnipegger Susan Auch won her second career silver in speed skating, a sport Klassen had just picked up that winter.

At that moment, Klassen saw another hill she'd never climbed.

Of course, she had to know what was on the other side.

So at 18, she decided to become the best speed skater she could be.

Klassen wasn't an overnight sensation in her new sport -- it just seems that way.

Her first day on the new blades, she couldn't even keep up with kids half her age.

But barely a year after watching the '98 Games on TV, she exploded onto the world stage, winning gold (1,000 metres) and bronze (500) at the world junior championships.

"She said she was going to give up hockey for one year," Jake Klassen recalls. "And she won two medals at the junior worlds."

This was getting serious. So serious, Cindy began looking for ways to improve, even during the off-season. Like competing for Canada in in-line speed skating at the 1999 Pan Am Games.

By her second year of skating, she was on the World Cup circuit with the big girls, turning in top-10 finishes at the overall world championship (500 metres) and the World Single Distances Championships (3,000).

A year later she began to win medals at the big international events.

There was no holding her back.

"She progressed faster, probably, than anybody I've ever coached," says Lori Derraugh, one of Klassen's first coaches at the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club. "When she moved out to Calgary, that was it. She just took off from there. I've never seen anybody climb so quickly. I've never seen anybody start at that age and become an Olympian."

Klassen's training base, ironically enough, was now in the same Calgary complex that housed Botterill and the rest of the national women's hockey team.

But she'd left her first love behind, for good.

"And has been a superstar ever since," Botterill says. "I would say it worked out great for her. Her story is honestly amazing."

Klassen looks back at her bitter hockey disappointment now and says it was obviously meant to be.

"I wouldn't be here if I hadn't been cut from the team," she says.

And wouldn't you know it, four years after she thought her Olympic dream had died, she laced up her speed skates at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

By this time she was ranked in the top five in the world in both the 1,500 and 3,000.

Just 22, she won Canada's first medal at those Games, a bronze in the 3,000. She just missed the podium, finishing fourth, in two other races.

All bets were off. The sky was the limit now.

At her age, Klassen had at least two more Olympics in her. The only thing left to find out: how much faster could she get?

But, again, destiny had her own ideas, and she was about to cut Klassen down at the knees, then place her at the foot of the biggest hill she'd ever have to climb.

FULL HELPING

If Klassen got a taste of international glory in 2002, she sat down at the table for a full helping the following year.

In the 2002-03 season she became the World Cup champion in the 1,500 metres, by now her strongest event.

But she really entered the history books Feb. 9, 2003, in Goteborg, Sweden, when she won the overall title at the World Speed Skating Championship -- the first time a Canadian had done that in 27 years.

Again, Klassen was blazing a new trail, or at least one that had been overgrown for decades.

Entering the 2003-04 season, she was on top of the world.

That all changed on Oct. 27, 2003.

During a routine training session at Calgary's Olympic Oval, Klassen, in full flight, fell while making a turn. The result was anything but routine.

"We got a call that she'd been hurt," Helga says. "We didn't know how serious it was."

Klassen's mom found out when she flew to Calgary the next day. Cindy had crashed into another skater, whose skate blade slashed deep into Cindy's right forearm.

"The doctor told me the bone stopped her skate," Helga says. "It cut all her tendons and a major artery and the nerve. If nobody had noticed, she could have been gone."

An arena worker, the Zamboni driver, got to Klassen first, and immediately tried to slow the bleeding.

A crowd gathered, and Klassen, fighting to keep from blacking out, recalls everybody yelling at her to remain conscious.

The first words out of her mouth: "Am I going to die?"

'PRETTY SCARED'

"I was pretty scared," Klassen says. "Everybody looked so concerned that I thought this must be pretty bad."

Four hours of surgery later, doctors weren't sure if she'd ever regain full use of her right hand.

Her skating career on hold indefinitely, Klassen looked through the gloom and, incredibly, found a bright side.

"I definitely feel lucky," she told Sun Media from her hospital bed. "I had great doctors who did the best they could. I'm also so lucky I didn't cut my face, my leg or anything else. If my arm's not working, well, that's OK."

It was typical Cindy. Quick with a smile, she never seems to let things bring her down.

Back home to recover, she did anything but mope around, leaning on her faith in God and a belief there was a reason for what had happened.

"She was an inspiration to us," Helga says.

As positive as she was on the outside, Klassen admits to having low moments.

"I just wanted to skate again. But then I started to think about things. I was thinking, 'Will I be able to do things with my kids when I get older? Is this going to affect me my whole life?' Then I was a little worried."

By January, wearing a splint on her arm, Klassen was back on the ice in Calgary, refusing to give up on the season.

That she made it back to the World Cup circuit the next month is one thing. The fact she reached the podium on just her second weekend of competition, winning a silver medal in the 1,000 in the Netherlands, says everything about her determination.

Another hill, conquered.

And from the top of this one, Klassen could begin to see Turin, Italy, site of the 2006 Winter Games.

Klassen's injury has left her with some permanent damage.

She has no feeling in her last two fingers, so she can't use them to type, and she's no longer able to play the grand piano in her parents' living room.

Her skating, though, is stronger than ever.

Last season, Klassen was the 1,500-metre champion on the World Cup circuit. She also won world titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 at the World Single Distances Championships.

Say hello to Canada's female athlete of the year for '05.

This season, she's already broken world records in the 1,500 and 3,000, suggesting she may be the one to catch at The Games.

Ask her about Turin, though, and she's typically low key.

"I want to do better than I did at the last Olympics," Klassen says.

That shouldn't be a problem.

Based on recent results, she's a threat in the 1,000, a favourite in the 1,500 and 3,000, even someone to watch in the 5,000.

But don't expect her to make any bold predictions. That's not her style.

She just goes out and does it. Sees a hill and starts climbing.

And while she won't allow fear to travel with her, modesty remains a constant companion.

Expectations? Those are just unnecessary supplies in her backpack.

That doesn't stop others from piling them on, though.

"I would not be surprised if she has five medals," says no less an expert than Catriona Le May Doan, Canada's two-time gold medallist. "That's not a crazy thought. Why not? You look at what she's done ... that is possible."

Toss that prediction at Klassen, from an Olympian she watched on TV back in '98, and she handles it with ease.

"It'd be great," she says, laughing and sounding self-conscious at the same time. "But, going into the Olympics, they're different than anything we've ever done before. They're weird, too, sometimes. There could be someone that's been skating in eighth place all year, and they come out and win. It could be anybody's day.

"I want to have fun while I'm racing and give it my all, and I don't know what's going to happen."

In other words, enjoy the journey and don't worry about the consequences.

Just like that two-year-old on the trike. Or the explorer in the woods. Or the 18-year-old on speed skates for the first time.

Let's just see where this path leads.

Maybe there's something really neat over that next hill.

Last season, Klassen was the 1,500-metre champion on the World Cup circuit. She also won world titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 at the World Single Distances Championships.

Say hello to Canada's female athlete of the year for '05.

This season, she's already broken world records in the 1,500 and 3,000, suggesting she may be the one to catch at The Games.

Ask her about Turin, though, and she's typically low key.

"I want to do better than I did at the last Olympics," Klassen says.

That shouldn't be a problem.

Based on recent results, she's a threat in the 1,000, a favourite in the 1,500 and 3,000, even someone to watch in the 5,000.

But don't expect her to make any bold predictions. That's not her style.

She just goes out and does it. Sees a hill and starts climbing.

And while she won't allow fear to travel with her, modesty remains a constant companion.

Expectations? Those are just unnecessary supplies in her backpack.

That doesn't stop others from piling them on, though.

"I would not be surprised if she has five medals," says no less an expert than Catriona Le May Doan, Canada's two-time gold medallist. "That's not a crazy thought. Why not? You look at what she's done ... that is possible."

Toss that prediction at Klassen, from an Olympian she watched on TV back in '98, and she handles it with ease.

"It'd be great," she says, laughing and sounding self-conscious at the same time. "But, going into the Olympics, they're different than anything we've ever done before. They're weird, too, sometimes. There could be someone that's been skating in eighth place all year, and they come out and win. It could be anybody's day.

"I want to have fun while I'm racing and give it my all, and I don't know what's going to happen."

In other words, enjoy the journey and don't worry about the consequences.

Just like that two-year-old on the trike. Or the explorer in the woods. Or the 18-year-old on speed skates for the first time.

Let's just see where this path leads.

Maybe there's something really neat over that next hill.







Bios

Roster

History

Schedule

Preview

Men's 500m
Results
Past Champs

Men's 1,000m
Results
Past Champs

Men's 1,500m
Results
Past Champs

Men's 5,000m
Results
Past Champs

Men's 10,000m
Results
Past Champs

Men's Team Pursuit
Results
Past Champs

Women's 500m
Results
Past Champs

Women's 1,000m
Results
Past Champs

Women's 1,500m
Results
Past Champs

Women's 3,000m
Results
Past Champs

Women's 5,000m
Results
Past Champs

Women's Team Pursuit
Results
Past Champs