December 21, 2011
Christine Nesbitt: QMI Agency Canadian Female Athlete of the Year
By Dave Pollard, QMI Agency
Going round and round in circles, Christine Nesbitt still can't seem to get her hands on the very thing that every world-class athlete chases.
A perfect performance.
Despite winning with ho-hum regularity on the World Cup long-track speed skating circuit and having an Olympic gold medal tucked into her back pocket, the one thing that seems to drive Nesbitt is her potential to do more in her sport.
Yes, the volume has been turned down on the critical voice in her head, largely a result of winning the 1,000-metre gold in Vancouver, but the 26-year-old from London, Ont., still hears it on a regular basis. When she lets out the inner critic, in interviews with members of the media and others who aren't around her all the time, it can be a little disconcerting.
"I think that's how other people, when they hear me talk, perceive me (to be)," Nesbitt said when asked if she's too hard on herself. "I guess I am but the way I perceive it is nobody else knows what I'm capable of more than myself. I don't know exactly what I am capable of but there's just something in me where I know I have more. It might not be more power or more technical ability, just something you can put on the ice and show people. It's really hard to explain.
"I'm still really critical of myself and I analyze everything after and I want to keep improving. In that way I'm similar. But I'm also able to kind of enjoy the process, enjoy where I'm at a lot more."
It's that kind of attitude, that singular focus, that has made Nesbitt great at what she does, which is to skate faster than just about anybody else on the planet. She's intense, driven, all the qualities that define the world's best athletes, but lately has come to realize there is more to being human than excelling in sports.
"After winning an Olympic gold medal and having that release, I was like 'There's so much more to this sport and so much more to being a well-rounded person.' I think that's how I've changed since then," Nesbitt admitted.
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It was the Olympic gold medal, the first of her storied career, that opened the floodgates to Nesbitt's success in 2011.
When Nesbitt crossed the finish line at the Richmond Olympic Oval two-hundredths of a second ahead of Annette Gerritsen of the Netherlands, the emotion that hit her was relief, not unbridled joy. Not the reaction you might expect from an athlete who just hit the high-water mark of her career.
But the Olympic experience had a positive effect, perhaps surprisingly so, on Nesbitt.
"I didn't really know what to expect coming off the Olympics ... that seems so long ago," she said. "I've talked about how the Olympics were really stressful for me and I had a hard time enjoying it. It felt more like a relief when I won my medal, as opposed to being super happy. Emotionally and psychologically coming down after the Olympics took a lot out of me. So many things happened after the Olympics for me.
"To come into 2011 and do as well as I did is not something I would have expected given the circumstances. I definitely didn't expect it."
Each time Nesbitt dug in at the start line for a 1,000-metre race in 2011, she crossed the finish line first.
Well, all but once. There was that disappointing fourth-place finish at the World Cup Final in Heerenveen, Netherlands, last March, a race won by Ireen Wust of the Netherlands.
Perfection, just out of reach again.
But all told, Nesbitt won nine gold medals at World Cup events in 2011, including a pair in Team Pursuit with Cindy Klassen and Brittany Schussler.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, there were also, yawn, gold medals at the World Sprint Championships in Heerenveen and the World Single Distance Championships in Inzell, Germany, making her the world champ at 1,000m for the third consecutive year.
At the World All-Round Championships in Calgary, though, Nesbitt had to settle for silver despite winning the 500m race.
The one thing that has become apparent in 2011 is that Nesbitt, like the artificial rabbit used to lure Greyhounds into racing around a track, has become the one skater everyone else is looking to overtake.
"I think it totally has (made her a target), for sure," Nesbitt said. "But I also feel like I used to be really scared of those girls catching up to me. Because I've matured more as a person in the last year and a half, it's much more about myself, much more about my ability. There are times, of course, where I'm nervous but I'm more able to tap into my potential these days."
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There's an old saying that potential just means you haven't done anything yet.
But that's certainly not the case with Nesbitt, who has thrown her hat into the ring with some of Canada's speed skating greats -- Susan Auch, Catriona Le May Doan, Clara Hughes and Klassen.
Auch was Canada's first female superstar in the sport, dominating the early 1990s, before giving way to Le May Doan, a seven-time winner of Speed Skating Canada's long track skater of the year award. Klassen, Hughes and Kristina Groves have also won that award the last decade.
Just don't mention Nesbitt, winner of the SSC award for 2011, in the same breath as those icons of the sport.
"I don't really think of myself that way because I think of this group of athletes the last decade in Canada ... they're just set apart from me, if that makes sense," Nesbitt said. "I can't put myself in the category with them because I haven't done what they've done. Even if my results have been better than some people, they really opened up speed skating to Canadians. I'm just trying to carry it on for them.
"I just feel I've come up in speed skating after an amazing group of skaters that have paved the way for me. They're incredible athletes and at the same time they're just really great people. That's why it's so important to be well-rounded and developed, not just as an athlete but as a human. I think they've shown me that."
Like her teammates at her first Olympics, the 2006 Games in Turin, and those who previously carried the torch for Canada inspired her, Nesbitt has become the source of inspiration for a younger generation of female athletes.
She's a role model on the track and, well, in life. That much she's prepared to acknowledge and even embrace.
"I never saw myself as that before, I felt like I was still a kid," she said. "But now I do feel like I'm starting to be able to inspire people. And I want to do that, whether it's in sports or anything. You'll see good things from your hard work, that's the way I feel."
At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Nesbitt will have a chance to solidify her place in Canadian speed skating history. The Russian Games are still more than two years away but they're already in sight for her.
"The next Olympics are creeping up on us," she said, almost incredulously. "At least it is for me."
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In European countries like the Netherlands, where speed skating rules, Nesbitt is probably treated like a rock star. Back home, not so much.
So after toiling in relative anonymity halfway around the world -- most of Nesbitt's races take place in Europe, well out of sight of the Canadian media -- Nesbitt agrees that it's nice to get a little face time back home.
Nesbitt has been in the mix for many year-end honours but admitted to being mildy surprised when told she'd topped the poll, overwhelmingly as it turns out, in the voting for QMI Agency's female athlete of the year award.
"I still kind of feel like, 'Whoa, really?' It's a great honour, for sure," Nesbitt said while taking a break from studying for an exam at the University of Calgary. "We train really hard all year and work really hard to compete well all year and represent Canada as best we can. It's not your goal to win an award but it's really nice to have that recognition and to know that the work we're putting in is being recognized and supported.
"People care, so that's cool."
Nesbitt has become the dominant skater in the 1,000-metre event and finished the World Cup season with just one loss at that distance. She finished off the 2010-11 season on a high note and picked right up where she left off this fall. Nesbitt won a pirate's chest of gold -- nine medals -- on the World Cup circuit in 2011.
World Cup (Astana, Kazakhstan): Gold medal in 1,500-metres, 1,000m.
World Cup (Heerenveen, Netherlands): Gold medal in 1,500m, 1,000m and Team
Pursuit (with Cindy Klassen and Brittany Schussler).
World Cup (Chelyabinsk, Russia): Gold medal in 1,000m and Team Pursuit (with
Klassen and Schussler).
World Cup (Moscow): Gold medal in 1,500m, 1,000m.
World Sprint Championships (Heerenveen): Gold medal in 1,000m (two events).
World Single Distance Championships (Inzell, Germany): Gold medal in 1,000m
and Team Pursuit (with Klassen and Schussler).
World All-Round Championships (Calgary): Silver medal overall -- gold in
500m, silvers in 1,500m, 3,000m and 5,000m.