Speed skaters raising stakes

By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

RICHMOND, B.C. — Christine Nesbitt pondered the question, but just for a moment.

The star of Canada’s speed skating team was asked if she and her teammates could match, maybe even surpass, the impressive eight-medal haul from Turin, four years ago.

“We won two gold medals in long track?” Nesbitt recalled. “We can do better than that.”

The grin on the 24-year-old’s face reflected the confidence the speed skaters have going into today’s first day of competition at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

More medals came from this bunch than any other in Turin, and odds are that’ll be the case again, even with Cindy Klassen (four individual medals in Italy) nowhere near her old self following double knee surgery a year and a half ago.

Canada has two heavy medal favourites this time, London’s Nesbitt and Kristina Groves of Ottawa, both powerhouses in the 1,000 and 1,500 metres.

Up-and-comer Brittany Schussler has also medalled this World Cup season, while Lucas Makowsky and Denny Morrison have hit the podium in men’s action.

And don’t forget Clara Hughes, the defending gold medalist in the 5,000. Canada is strong in both team events, too, the favourite in the women’s race.

“We have more depth,” high performance director Brian Rahill said. “That eight (medals) was made up of an unbelievable performance by an unbelievable athlete. There’s no guarantee that can happen again, ever. To assume we can go eight-plus automatically... is a little bit foolish.

“But we do have the depth, the coach, the program and the athletes that we can actually duplicate. or perhaps even improve, that result.”

Few countries could take an athlete like Klassen out of the mix and still hope to improve its medal total.

“We can win a medal in every distance,” Nesbitt predicted. “Except maybe the women’s 500.”

That’s a bold prediction, but it fits in with the whole Own the Podium approach.

The money’s been provided, the training’s been done — all that’s left is to come through on race day.

Coach Marcel Lacroix says that shouldn’t be a problem.

“They couldn’t feel better than right now,” Lacroix said. “They aren’t scared, they aren’t nervous, they are just ready. And am I excited to show this country what we can do? Oh yeah.”

That’s a lot of hype for a country that’s usually pretty low-key.

“We’re not over-hyped,” Schussler said. “This is an incredibly strong team, and we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with, for sure.”

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

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