Canada pushes to speedskating gold

An Olympics that frequently swung between success and disaster for Denny Morrison and the rest of Canada’s long-track speedskaters came to a golden end Saturday — and it was all in the push.

Canada’s Denny Morrison

Canada’s Denny Morrison

RICHMOND, B.C. — An Olympics that frequently swung between success and disaster for Denny Morrison and the rest of Canada’s long-track speedskaters came to a golden end Saturday — and it was all in the push.

The men’s pursuit team introduced a new technique to the sport when the second and third skaters gently tapped the member in front of him on the butt while on straightaways, helping the often tired leader maintain his speed with the boost from behind.

Coach Marcel Lacroix has been working on the concept for three years and only allowed Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., Lucas Makowsky of Regina and Mathieu Giroux of Montreal to pull it out during the Winter Games so other teams wouldn’t have time to copy it.

Good call.

The trio needed every edge it could find to beat an American team led by veteran Chad Hedrick, and with the final margin of victory a mere two-tenths of a second, the push probably made the difference.

“Today it saved our butts,” said Lacroix. “That gold was because of the push. It was so effective it was stupid.”

There were smiles all around afterward and one of the most notable came from Morrison, who fist-pumped several times as he strode up the podium to collect his gold. A week ago he was in complete misery after poor performances in the 1,000 and 1,500, and then ranting about his training practices while expressing a disinterest in the pursuit.

A series of meetings with Lacroix, Speed Skating Canada Olympic director Brian Rahill and finally his teammates helped him regain focus and Morrison led the way.

In Saturday’s final, as well as Friday’s quarter-final and semifinal wins, he carried the load by leading four of the eight laps, creating a draft that makes it easier for the skaters who follow.

“It was cool to be able to come together after a rough week with no medals for any of the men on the team,” said Morrison. “To come away with gold as a team, there’s no better way to finish off the Olympics for us.”

The same can be said for the long-trackers as a whole, who came to the Richmond Olympic Oval with hopes of winning nine medals and leave with five in the bag.

Kristina Groves of Ottawa (silver in 1,500, bronze in 3,000), Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont. (gold in 1,000) and Clara Hughes of Glen Sutton, Que. (bronze in 5,000), won the others, although there’s a sense they left at least a couple on the table.

“Overall they did well,” said Rahill. “Perhaps we thought we’d walk away with a few more, but in some ways it wasn’t meant to be and in some cases it’s a matter of addressing certain issues a little bit closer in preparation. The Olympic Games show you can never take anything for granted.”

The reference there is to the world record-holding women’s pursuit team, which was thought to be a slam-dunk medallist but instead had to settle for fifth. Groves, Nesbitt and Brittany Schussler of Winnipeg rallied from their stunning quarter-final loss to the unheralded Americans on Friday to soundly beat the Dutch in a classification race.

“There was really nothing to do but to try and put down the best race possible and prove to ourselves that we’re one of the best teams and should have been in there,” said Groves.

“I think we dug deep and proved to ourselves we’re solid skaters.”

The American women ended up out of the medals after losing the bronze to Poland, while Germany grabbed gold after edging Japan by two one-hundredths of a second.

The Germans provided a brilliant moment during their narrow semifinal win over the Americans, when star Anni Friesinger-Potsma slipped on the last turn, crawled comically on her belly to the finish and swung her leg across the line.

Thinking she had blown it for her team, Friesinger-Potsma began slapping the ice until she looked up, saw they had advanced and began pumping her fist. She then smiled sheepishly at the row of reporters laughing at her.

“I thought this was it, and then I looked and I did it,” she squealed.

The Dutch men, also gold-medal favourites, claimed bronze over Norway with an Olympic record time of three minutes 39.95 seconds.

The Canadian men established the previous marks twice on Friday, and they can also relish being a historical footnote as their gold was Canada’s 11th of the Games, setting a record for a host country at a Winter Olympics. Canada added two gold later on Saturday to run the total to 13.

Much of the speedskaters’ work in recent years, and particularly this summer and fall, really paid off.

The key to pursuit is maintaining sync in the skaters’ stride and the men began working on developing their chemistry back in the summer, during eight gruelling rowing sessions with Lacroix. The idea was if they could row together, they could also skate together.

That was also key for the push, which they practised secretly. It they aren’t in stride, the taps could cause a skater to lose balance and lead to disaster. That was never an issue.

“I think you’re going to see everyone doing it in team pursuits from now on because the cat’s out of the bag,” said Morrison. “The front guy is basically taking the wind, the guys in the back get sucked in right behind them, so it makes sure we can use all the energy of everyone on the team.”

Added Makowsky: “It really helped us, especially in those last couple of laps when we were all getting tired, especially starting as fast as we did.”

The threesome only began skating together this season and the missing ingredient was Giroux, who gave Morrison and Makowsky a solid third skater. A converted short-tracker with no shortage of confidence, Giroux clicked quickly with them.

“With my short-track background, I was set for this,” said Giroux. “My whole background is to know how to skate in packs.”

The men’s team prepared meticulously for the event in other ways, too, simulating the exact race schedule and conditions. They went as far as taking blood samples from the skaters to see how much of warmdown they needed to do in order to release enough lactate from the legs to perform repeatedly at a high-level in a short amount of time.

The podium trip ensured there was some reward for all the work.

“We went into these Olympics with high expectations with our men,” said Lacroix.

“It didn’t come true but at least we’re able as a team to say let’s put this behind us. Right there they took it seriously this week. Denny was disappointed and all that. After he did clear up the statements like that, he was like, ’OK, we’ve got a medal to win and we know we can do this.’

“That’s heart.”

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