Unknown legends at home

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

In Canadian Olympic lore, they have won more medals during the past dozen years than anyone.

Overseas they are idolized, led by the most-dominant Canadian athlete of the past 10 years and a prairie girl who is treated like royalty. But set them at Bay and Front St. and nine out of 10 passersby might think the only thing missing was a sleeping bag and an outstretched hat. Anonymity's children.

They are Canada's long and short track speed skaters.

They have combined to win more than 50% of Canada's medals at the past three Winter Olympics -- nine at Nagano and Salt Lake, plus 12 in Turin. On the homefront it has made them footnotes. When Kristina Groves won the overall title at the world championship qualifier, the nation snored. When eight of our skaters captured the maximum number of berths to compete in the world championships or Denny Morrison won bronze at the world sprint championships, a nation asked: "What's the spread on the Super Bowl?"

Jeremy Wotherspoon may be a legend in Amsterdam and Berlin, a winner of 57 World Cup races, more than any skater in history, but in Canada nobody thinks about that. He's remembered as that skater who fell at the Olympics.

"We are a marginal sport in this Canadian landscape and we always will be. Canada is about hockey," Brian Rahill, director of sport of Speed Skating Canada, said. "Then it's about figure skating and maybe the alpine events. We get good recognition in the media but I don't think that necessarily translates into recognition by the public. But it doesn't deter us from striving for excellence."

Not that this is another hard-luck tale. Amateur athletes may be mere quadrennial wonders but truth is, they've never had it quite so good, either.

"The amateur tag is sometimes a misnomer. People can earn a decent living. If you break into the top 10 (in the world) it becomes a career option," Rahill said of sports such as his and figure skating. And, if you dominate like Cindy Klassen?

"Cindy Klassen is like a queen in Holland," Rahill said, laughing.

But, that's in a country where speed skating coaches routinely earn up to $1 million a year. Klassen is so besieged there that she reportedly was attempting to find a way to qualify for the world all-round championships in February without going to a World Cup event in Heerenveen. Organizers are believed willing to pay her $20,000 to show up.

In Canada, the sport's adherents have equally high ambitions but live by more modest means.

There are only about 5,000 active speed skaters in Canada (the association has a membership of 10,000) but with the Canadian Olympic Association setting a target of 35 medals for the 2010 Games in Vancouver it has quietly told Rahill and Co. that they're expecting 16 from speed skating. "It's a possibility but of the eight medals in long track (in Turin), five came from Cindy. Sometimes people don't look long enough to see that was a big contributing factor."

Then there's the Korean juggernaut. No sport has seen a blitzkrieg of this type since the Chinese discovered diving -- except that the Koreans don't appear to have Dr. Needles in charge. "Where we used to be the powerhouse in short track, we've been passed by the Koreans. They seem to have a little bigger engine than us and a sixth gear that we haven't progressed to yet." Rahill said. So, in a can't-beat-'em-then-join-'em scenario, Canada hired Korean coach Jae Su Chun for its short trackers and Norwegian Finn Halvorsen to take over the long track program. Halvorsen helped the Norwegians prepare when they hosted the Games in 1994 and led the U.S. to its most successful effort ever in Salt Lake.

"We've gone from one high performance director to two separate directors," Rahill said. "(Finn is) very competent but also has been exposed to the uniqueness of preparing for Games when the pressure is greater than ever."

UNSURPASSED DEPTH

With the world all-round championships in three weeks the Canadian team is showing signs of unsurpassed depth. There's the emergence of Morrison. There are Arne Dankers, Clara Hughes and Klassen. Shannon Rempel is making a comeback. Jay Morrison won the 500 and finished third in the 1,500 at the world qualifying and didn't even make the Canadian team.

The Own the Podium program discovered that Jamie Gregg, son of ex-Edmonton Oilers defenceman Randy who has made the switch from hockey, recently had skated a 35.6 in the 500 metres. His sister, Jessica, recently won her first World Cup medal in short track.

And, finally, there's Wotherspoon, the Gretzky of a sport his countrymen don't recognize. He has one Olympic medal from 1998, a wonky back and a broken heart. He took this winter off to mend his psyche as much as his body. But while his name has been missing from the headlines, he's quietly doing dry-land training and "he's at the oval every day," Rahill said. "His chances of coming back are good. He's still one of the most gifted and talented skaters the sport has ever had."

But, three times at the Olympics, when it mattered most, he either slipped or fell and those defining moments have not been erased -- either by the nation or the man. "One of my motivating factors is to finally hang that gold medal around Jeremy's neck in 2010," Rahill said. "If that's the only one that we win -- and God help us if it is -- I will still find a way to have a smile on my face because he will have at least finally got what he deserves."

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NEED FOR SPEED

Canada's medal count at recent Winter Olympics:

- Nagano (1998)

Long track 6

Short track 3

All other sports 8

- Salt Lake (2002)

Long track 3

Short track 6

All other sports 9

- Turin (2006)

Long track 8

Short track 4

All other sports 12

- Vancouver (2010)-

Short track 6

Long track 9

All other sports 20

-projected


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