Long-track skaters light on medals

By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

RICHMOND, B.C. — It was supposed to the single biggest non-hockey moment of these Games, a double-medal haul, maybe even, if everything went perfectly, a podium sweep.

Yet, all Canada came away with at the Richmond Oval Sunday night was a silver, courtesy of Ottawa’s Kristina Groves, in the women’s 1,500 metres.

And while the nation’s one-day drought came to an end, it wasn’t exactly the downpour the country desperately needed. More like a light sprinkle.

It’s safe to say Team Canada will come nowhere near the medal projections made by its own leaders going into Vancouver 2010.

And now it appears the malady of unfulfilled expectation has spread to the one place previously deemed untouchable: The long-track skaters who, with three medals so far, won’t match the eight they won in Turin four years ago.

While it’s probably unfair to Groves — why should she have some of the shine taken off her second medal of the Games because others are faltering around her? — it’s a fact, cold and hard as the steel blades she glides on.

Canadian athletes, all too often, aren’t coming through under pressure.

One by one they fall on the ski slope, stumble on the short track or rub a wall on the bobsleigh and skeleton track, the reverse momentum seeming to build.

An outbreak of Oh-No! has certainly weakened the host nation and left it feeling a tad light in the stomach. Enough to leave a permanent stain on the Vancouver Games?

Groves doesn’t think so.

“You see the headlines,” Groves acknowledged. “Like, ‘Canadian Officials Have Downgraded Their Expectations.’ Without a doubt people are going to look back on these Games as a great success, regardless. Everywhere I look, there are people raving about how things are going. Whether we live up to the 87 medals we’re supposed to win remains to be seen.”

She was being facetious, but the comment is telling. It was never the athletes who touted the whole Own the Podium thing. Sure, they want to win medals. But setting high expectations (30-plus medals, more than any country, was the target) only sets them up for a fall.

“I just kind of look at them and I shrug,” Groves said of the numbers. “Because they’re meaningless. Because we never know what’s going to happen. I’ve said that every time we talk about it. The Olympics is just that crazy thing where the unexpected happens.

“Sport is hard. We’re all doing the very best we can with our hearts, our bodies and our minds.”

Groves says the pressure of performing at home is immense, echoing what many other Canadian athletes have said.

Christine Nesbitt, one of our gold medallists, says she vastly underestimated the stress, going in — or simply pretended it wasn’t there.

But it’s showing up, time and time again.

Nesbitt, still drained from her winning performance in the 1,000 metres Thursda didn’t have enough in the tank Sunday to claim the podium spot she’s gotten so used to claiming in the 1,500.

Brittany Schussler, Canada’s other podium hopeful, mysteriously lost an edge just before the race, and didn’t have time to warm up, finishing second-last.

That’s horrible luck.

The rest, just human shortcomings on a stage that makes you pay dearly for it.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

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