Canuck skaters holding an edge

IAN BUSBY -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:12 AM ET

Upon the retirement of Canada's Queen of Speed in 2003, there was a void on the long-track speed skating team.

Cindy Klassen moved right in, whether she wanted to or not.

As the entire 20-person team officially assembled yesterday for the first time prior into the Turin Olympics starting Feb. 10, Klassen was front and centre, taking the competitive place of Catriona Le May Doan, who took the job of announcing the skaters yesterday at the Olympic Oval.

With few sure podium finishes expected, like the ones Le May Doan skated to in 2002, Klassen represents the team leader -- about as much of a bet to medal as there is among the 20 competitors flying Red and White.

"I don't know if I am," said Klassen, who was recently named top Canadian female athlete of 2005.

"We're all strong skaters. As a team, we're strong and have a good support system. We push each other to higher levels."

While Le May Doan was a champion in the thrilling, 500-metre races, Klassen is an expert in the mid-range distances, holding the world record in the 1,500 and 3,000 events. The Winnipeg native brought home a bronze from Salt Lake and has been on fire since then, winning the overall title at the world championships in 2003 and the World Cup title for the 1,500 in '03 and '05, despite a serious arm injury in 2003.

She sets an important example for the youngsters who will be making their first Olympic appearance.

Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., has only been on the senior national team for one season and looks to Klassen and fellow veterans Clara Hughes, Kristina Groves, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Mike Ireland for how to behave before a race.

"Even if they don't say anything, they have a way about them that exudes confidence," said Nesbitt, at 20 the youngest on the team. "They're really supportive in that way.

"I'm going to be very excited going to Turin. Hopefully I'm smart and don't waste too much energy. The vets have more experience and aren't distracted by the whole thing as much.

"They're good role models for me to follow."

If everything comes together, the long-track team could win up to 10 medals, with anywhere from five to nine considered a success.

Wotherspoon will contend in the 500 along with Ireland, who just recently got back on blades after missing a year with a serious concussion. He isn't entirely 100% and just qualifying was a feat in itself.

Hughes should contend in the 3,000 and 5,000, while Groves has a shot in her four individual events -- everything but the 500. Calgary's Arne Dankers has been on fire in the longer distances, setting Canadian records in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 races in recent months.

Both the men's and women's teams should have podium chances in the team pursuit -- a new event for Turin.

Klassen's coach Neal Marshall hopes a good start with wins in the men's 5,000 and women's 3,000 can propel the team to amazing results.

"As far as pressure goes, it's all how they perceive it," Marshall said. "The key for them is to see that as support."


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