Behind the scenes

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 10:18 AM ET

On the surface, Cindy Klassen wasn't fazed by much as she carved out her place in Canadian sports history, winning five medals at the Turin Winter Olympics last year.

The truth is Klassen was a nervous wreck who was up half the night, particularly early on.

"She wasn't sleeping at all," Brittany Schussler, Klassen's good friend and roommate in Turin, told Sun Media. "She started taking sleeping pills ... pretty much every night."

The pressure and expectations were getting to Klassen.

Her coach, Neal Marshall, could see it, too.

The strategy going in was to keep things light, not think about the implications of what she might accomplish. To get her away from the sport occasionally, too.

"That becomes more of a challenge in the village," Marshall said. "Because you come back from training and you go eat with all the teammates from other sports and it's in your face all the time."

The night before the 3,000 metres, Klassen was so nervous she didn't want to watch the men race. She had Schussler turn off the TV in their room. No Olympics. Period.

The next day, nerves probably robbed Klassen of a gold or silver.

"The effect of nerves is something you can't see," Marshall said. "It's just a little bit of extra tension in the body."

Just enough to take its toll at the end of a race.

Publicly, Klassen put on a brave face about the colour of her first medal. Privately, she told Schussler how she really felt.

"She was gunning for first, for sure," Schussler said. "That's what she wanted."

Two things happened that helped Klassen loosen up.

One was the team pursuit. The camaraderie both the men's and women's teams experienced in winning silver medals, and being able to share the spotlight, did wonders for her.

Canadians might also want to thank Nev and Gliz.

Italian for "snow" and "ice," Turin's official mascots helped break the ice that was closing in on the "Queen of the Games," as Klassen had been touted.

"We had little dolls of them, and we'd put them everywhere," Schussler said. "I would put them on her backpack before she left or hang them from the telephone cord, and she'd walk by and she'd hit one. And I'd go into the change room when she wasn't around and hang them. So she could take a swing at them."

It's a silly ritual that served two purposes: to lighten the mood and to remind Klassen to attack.

"You're in this intense sporting environment, and you need to be a goof, you need to blow off and have the yin and the yang," Marshall said. "There were many of those goofy things going on that were really valuable."

DREAM OF GOLD

By her third event, the 1,000 metres, Klassen was on her game -- almost. While she didn't race the 1,000 very often, she loved it, and thought she could win it.

But she missed gold by some two one-hundreds of a second. Again, she was disappointed, at least away from the cameras.

"She wasn't going there with dreams of silvers and bronze," Schussler said. "It was a dream for a gold medal."

The 1,500 was Klassen's best event. Looking back, the timing of it, fourth on her schedule, was perfect: her nerves were gone, she was in a routine and after the 1,000, she was a little mad.

The press and the public had been satisfied, too.

The morning of the 1,500, Schussler immediately saw a difference in her roommate.

"I noticed that she was just Cindy," she said. "Before the other races ... she always wanted to have someone to keep her distracted. Before the 1,500 she was just totally cool. She realized it was going to happen for her whether she was stressed about it or not. That's the perfect place to be."

Her coach had another way of putting it.

"Ready to go tear it up without fear," Marshall said.

Klassen would later credit Marshall for instilling a confidence in her that day. He insists he didn't do anything differently.

They say there's no such thing as the perfect race, but on Feb. 22 Klassen came close, annihilating the field by nearly a second and a half.

"It brought tears to my eyes," Schussler said. "That's her race. If she was going to win just one race, I'm glad it was that one."

Even in her shining moment, Klassen accepted the spotlight reluctantly. Schussler nearly had to push her out for the customary victory lap. When she finally went, she took silver-medal winner Kristina Groves along.

Whatever happened in her last race, the 5,000 metres, was irrelevant now.

Klassen had what she'd come for.

What else but a gold crown for the Queen of the Games?


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