Speed skaters hitting stride

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RICHMOND, B.C.—First, it was Regina’s Lucas Makowsky in the men’s 5,000 metres on Saturday.

Next up was Clara Hughes in Sunday’s 3,000, followed by Kristina Groves.

All three Canadian speed skaters had one thing in common in their Vancouver 2010 debuts: they came up with something special on the Richmond Olympic Oval.

Makowsky skated the “race of his life,” shaving almost five second off his world championship appearance on the same track a year ago. Hughes said her effort was one of only three times she’s nailed the 3,000, finishing fifth in an event that isn’t her specialty.

And Groves hit the podium, even though her best events are the 1,500 and 1,000.

The long-trackers, under huge expectations here, needed a good start — and they got it.

“This is the beginning for our team,” Hughes said. “This is setting the tone for our team. There’s a lot of good to come.”

Success is infectious. But so is failure.

There’s no telling what would happen if the Canadians underachieved the first few times they stepped on the ice. There’s no telling what they might achieve now.

It was similar in Turin four years ago, when Cindy Klassen did what Groves just did, winning bronze in the first women’s event. By the time the skaters returned to Canada, they had eight medals in tow.

To hear coach Marcel Lacroix tell it, those same good vibrations were already running through the team after the first men’s race.

“Conditions were really, really tough,” Lacroix said. “The ice was really demanding. For the rest of them to see what those guys did under the circumstances . . . it just creates a vibe in the team, like, wow, that was a really good day for us.”

The ice here is “sticky,” which means it doesn’t have the glide of the surfaces in Calgary or Salt Lake City. The huge drop in elevation also means denser air, and more wind resistance. So there aren’t likely to be any world records set.

But the Canucks have something to help them fight through the thick air and slow ice, something they didn’t have in Turin: a leather-lunged crowd cheering their every stride.

From the sound of it, it’s already making a difference.

“I’ve never heard anything quite as loud as that in Canada before,” Groves said. “That was really special for me and everyone who raced for Canada. It’s so precious to have that opportunity to feel that.”

Sure, it seems like half the fans are from the Netherlands. But for the first time in these athletes’ Olympic careers, they’re getting the louder ovations. And it’s making those hearts pump just a little stronger, the legs last a little longer and the lungs hurt a little less.

“That crowd was incredible,” Hughes said. “I heard Cindy (Klassen) racing and heard the crowd, and I just thought, ‘You’ll never feel this again after these Games, so just soak it in.’”

These Games mark the end of the competitive line for Hughes.

In eight days she’ll skate her last Olympic race, the 5,000. By then, there’s no telling how big the pile of medals will be in the Canadian locker room.

Groves and Christine Nesbitt are demons in the 1,000 and 1,500. Denny Morrison is a contender in the men’s 1,000, at least. Both pursuit teams are in the mix, the women favoured for gold.

And no one knows what kids like Makowsky and Brittany Schussler will come up with.

“We have an incredibly strong team,” Groves said. “We’ll do really, really well.”

They’re looking solid out of the blocks.

Seems the fans aren’t the only ones ready to make some noise.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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