Speed skaters came up a bit short

By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

RICHMOND, B.C. — The expectations were enormous. If Canada was going to Own the Podium, its speed skaters would provide the bulk of the down payment.

Turned out they came up just a few coins short.

Canadian skating officials predicted some 14 medals in Vancouver — eight or so from the long trackers, maybe half a dozen from the short track.

The final tally was 10 — five apiece.

But don’t tell Kristina Groves, who provided two of them, that these Games were a failure.

“Ten medals is pretty remarkable,” Groves said. “Considering the expectations and the pressure that were on this team, we mostly did extremely well.”

That’s the thing about all those prognostications: Nobody factored in the effect of the home-country pressure. We didn’t have enough experience at it to know how it works.

“It’s really hard to convey to the general public just how hard that is,” Groves said. “You start to believe, even if you don’t want to, that you’re supposed to do something a certain way, just because people looked at a result sheet from last year.”

Groves and teammate Christine Nesbitt were the primary case studies here.

Heavily favoured to win four medals between them, plus the team pursuit, they got three, all individual: Groves a silver and bronze, Nesbitt a gold.

Groves admits the failure to live up to all the hype took just a touch of the lustre off.

“I struggled a little bit with how I feel about my races,” she said. “You almost feel like, ‘If I didn’t do what people said I should have done... did I fail?’ ”

It’s the curse of success: Do it once, and everybody expects it again.

Nesbitt won so many World Cup races, it was almost a given she’d be on the podium twice. As it is, she comes home an Olympic champion with a touch of an Olympic hangover, describing her Games as “a bit all over the place.”

“I had some good moments and some not-so-good moments,” Nesbitt said. “That’s what happens when you become a medal contender. But I appreciate how far I’ve come the last four years.”

That’s just it: these athletes worked their tails off to get to this point. You don’t write all that off just because their Olympic performance was less than perfect.

And we shouldn’t alter the Own the Podium program, either, says double short-track medalist Francois-Louis Tremblay.

“Own the Podium works,” Tremblay said. “They’re putting the money in the right place.”

Even if it didn’t buy as much as they’d hoped.

“Perhaps we thought we’d walk away with a few more,” said Brian Rahill, Speed Skating Canada’s Olympic director. “The Olympic Games showed you can never take anything for granted.”

Like how the heavily favoured women’s long-track pursuit team chose not to have a coach use signals during their race. Fooled by the crowd noise at the Oval, the women were surprised to cross the finish line with a slower time than the U.S. in their quarter-final.

That was one medal that got away.

“Not leaving any stones unturned, even at the 11th hour,” is what Canada learned, Rahill said.

Don’t expect a major shakeup in the way the team operates, though.

“Ultimately what matters in the Olympic games is the same as in life,” Rahill said. “It’s not always whether you won or lost, but whether you fought well. The athletes fought well. We have to walk away with our heads high.”

Groves put it another way, suggesting the expectations, and now second-guessing, are all just noise.

“At the end of the day,” Groves said. “You have to brush all that aside and say, ‘Did I do everything I could?’ I did.”

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

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