SOCHI, RUSSIA - The first word out of her mouth was “calisse.” And she followed up her French expletive with one in English, then alternated swear words in both of Canada’s official languages at the absolute worst moment of these Olympic Games.
It was all she could do at this miserable time.
In a long barren hallway beneath the stands of the Iceberg Skating Palace, Marianne St-Gelais looked up at a television screen, saw her longtime boyfriend, Charles Hamelin, crash to the ice and she screamed with frustration. She jumped and yelled and punched at the wall as though she herself had crashed.
Just a few minutes earlier, she was emotionally talking about her own difficult Olympics — two races, twice failing to reach the final — how frustrating that has been and talking about how she and Charles don’t talk on the day each of them race, and how she takes his successes and failures far more emotionally than he does.
“My face,” she said, “says everything.”
And her face, with an expressive smile so wide it can light up the sky, spoke shock and sadness more than ever in the minutes after Hamelin’s fall placed him last in the 1,000-metre speed skating event he was favoured to win.
Hamelin has known extremes in these Games: He won his first race dominantly, winning gold, and placed last in his second individual event.
For him, St-Gelais alternated her expletives, going English to French, French to English, trying to understand what exactly happened that sent Hamelin to the ice.
“Why Charles,” she said out loud and then repeated herself. Then she turned to the two of us talking to her. “What happened? Did you see?”
All of Canada woke up to see the sadness in Hamelin’s eyes, to see the man favoured to win his second gold medal end up crashing out. The Hamelin fall, self-induced, came just minutes after St-Gelais had failed to qualify for the 1,500m women’s event. The first family of Canadian short-track speed skating won two gold medals, two silver medals in Vancouver: Now, with not many opportunities left, they grasp tightly to Hamelin’s gold medal and his dominating performance in the 1,500 and not much else.
Charles thought a rut in the ice cost him the fall. From afar, it looked like his right skate caught some ice behind him, he lost his balance, and couldn’t recover. He fell hard. A few days earlier, his brother, Francois, fell to end a relay opportunity for Canada. St-Gelais, in two events thus far, has yet to get out of the qualifying rounds.
This wasn’t expected from the short-track team. But as coach Yves Hamelin, father of Charles and Francois, said before the Olympics: “You hope to avoid the catastrophies.”
And sometimes, like Saturday, they become self-induced. Hamelin wasn’t pushed or cut off or any of the external reasons short-track skaters fall. He just lost his balance.
And in falling not only did Hamelin end his race, he ended the competition for American Eduardo Alvarez. “He said ‘I’m sorry man’ in his French accent,” said Alvarez. “It happens sometimes. It’s unfortunate for him. It’s more unfortunate for me.”
This is what happens in short-track speed skating: sometimes you’re out and you’ve done nothing wrong. And sometimes you’re the reason you’re out.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Hamelin, who deep down so much wanted to be the individual star of these Olympics for Canada. He said he fell because of a little crack in the ice. He said the ice was soft. But he said the ice was good.
“The ice broke under my blades,” he said. “Right under my right blade. I got unstable. Wasn’t able to come back from that instability. Next thing I know I was in a mess.
“Today was a rude day for many people. We have to live with it . . . It’s a disappointment for sure. It’s my favourite race. It was the (worst) thing that could happen to me.”
Overall, it was a dismal day for the Canadians at short track. The three men, Hamelin, Oliver Jean and Charle Cournoyer, two expected to be on the podium, didn’t qualify for the finals. None of the three women, St-Gelais, Valerie Maltais and Marie-Eve Drolet, made it either to the 1,500 final.
“I was ready for a good race,” said Hamelin. He had eaten breakfast with St-Gelais at the athletes village, although they barely spoke. That’s not unusual for race day. Then they separated: Hamelin to his area to get ready at the rink. St-Gelais to hers.
She thought they would celebrate at night. She, like so many Canadians, believed that. And she smiled at the end of her 1,500 heat, because it’s a signal to Charles, a signal that she’s OK. He didn’t smile back after his race.
And when last seen, St-Gelais was walking down the hallway of the rink known as the Iceberg, she walked past a row of television sets, alternating her curse words in French and English: At this point, there was nothing else left to say.
CRASH CLAIMS U.S. RIVAL
There was blood on Eduardo Alvarez's swollen lip and clearly his face had seen better days.
Alvarez was victim to Charles Hamelin's fall in the men's 1,000-metre speed skating race. He was in third place in his heat, behind Hamelin, when Hamelin lost an edge, fell and took the American Alvarez out of the race, too.
"I think he made some contract (on me) with his elbow," he said of Hamelin.
"He got me good. My dad would be proud." Alvarez, the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, might be the least likely short-track speed skater in the world.
But surprisingly, he wasn't bitter about Hamelin taking him out of the race. He was rather resigned to the old axiom that stuff happens in short track.
"He's a great skater," Alvarez said of Hamelin. "This is really unfortunate for him. But it's unfortunate for me. It cost me my day. It's a freak thing.
"Now I have to go clean up my face."