RICHMOND, B.C. — In an ideal world for Canada’s long-track speedskating team, Christine Nesbitt would be standing alongside Kristina Groves on the podium at the Richmond Olympic Oval, each celebrating their second medal of these Winter Games before an adoring crowd.
But these are far from ideal times, so the silver medal claimed by Groves in Sunday’s women’s 1,500 metres was like a well-placed ice-pack for a team still trying to soothe itself from some stinging body blows in recent days.
Yes, the gaudy nine-medal haul many predicted, including long-track team officials in private, is a thing of the past. Nesbitt’s sixth-place finish Sunday pretty much made sure of that. But hitting on one of two projected medals in this race is still a step towards keeping things from flying completely off the rails.
“I’m happy for that for sure,” said Groves. “It’s not something I go into a race thinking about, but all of us, every member of this Canadian team is doing everything they can to live up to the expectations and the hopes and dreams of the nation.
“That’s sport, it’s really hard. That was a really, really hard race.”
No doubt, and it came a day after teammate Denny Morrison struggled for the second time at these Games and publicly questioned his program following his ninth-place finish in the men’s 1,500. He backtracked from his comments Sunday and apologized to Speed Skating Canada, but the incident hung in the backdrop.
Then Groves changed the atmosphere with the third silver of her Olympic career, becoming the first Canadian to win multiple medals at the Vancouver Games. The 33-year-old from Ottawa also claimed bronze in the women’s 3,000 a week earlier and missed out on another third by six-hundredths of a second in the 1,000.
Nesbitt won that race, and was a leading candidate to join Groves on the 1,500 podium until she faded in the final 200 metres and settled for sixth, leaving the country’s speedskaters 3-for-6 in terms of medals they had projected for themselves so far.
The 24-year-old from London, Ont., who was despondent after skating poorly in her 1,000 win, was much happier after having “a lot more fun” in the 1,500, freed from the draining pressure around her.
“I didn’t realize or acknowledge how much pressure and stress I had on myself to perform in that 1,000,” said Nesbitt. “It took a lot of energy out of me and even (Saturday) I was really tired just doing my pre-race skate. I went into this race just wanting to skate and enjoy it and normally when I do that for 1,500 I end up skating really well and on the podium. I wasn’t today, obviously, but it’s still good and I still won a gold medal so I can’t be that upset.”
Ireen Wust won gold in one minute 56.89 seconds — the fifth long-track medal for the Netherlands — followed by Groves in 1:57.14 and 3,000 champion Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic in 1:57.96, less than four-tenths of a second ahead of Nesbitt.
Cindy Klassen was 21st in 2:00.67 while fellow Winnipegger Brittany Schussler, who had skate problems before her race and barely made it to the start line in time, was 35th in 2:04.17.
Like Lucas Makowsky of Regina a night earlier, Schussler was considered a dark-horse candidate for a medal. While the Canadian team still has a good shot at winning three medals in the four remaining long-track events, they haven’t had any of their longshots pull through and make up for favourites who faded.
“When you’ve got one or two that are slipping away, you ask yourself what is it?” said national team coach Marcel Lacroix. “The Olympics are the Olympics, that’s why (Saturday), you had a guy (Mark Tuitert) that won a gold medal beating Shani Davis by half a second and he hasn’t won a race in four years. The guy came, said he had nothing to lose, boom, let’s go. What the hell? He just won it.
“That’s the Olympics, you get these surprise medals, and unfortunately, we haven’t had those surprise medals. Hopefully it’s going to convert here soon.”
Maybe the whole team needs to watch and learn from Groves a bit more.
Waiting for the gun to go off, she had the look of a prize fighter dying to get at their opponent. She attacked her race that way, too, and was on pace to supplant Wust until the final seconds.
“I was pretty pissed off,” Groves said of her approach at the line. “I was actually kind of drawing from the 1,000 because I really felt like I had it that day and I didn’t quite put it together, it was so close that day, I think that’s why I came out of the gates blazing.
“It was an incredible 1,100 for me and I just kind of lost it in the last 100 metres.”
Groves and Nesbitt had dominated the 1,500 this season, each winning two World Cup races.
They also share an intense but friendly rivalry, each unwilling to play second fiddle to the other. After finishing second to Groves at the Calgary World Cup by eight-hundredths of a second in December, Nesbitt said it hurt more losing out to her teammate than someone else because she’d be reminded of it every day in training.
And much like Nesbitt winning gold in the 1,000, Groves was also lamenting how much better she might have been.
“I think we’re always our own worst critics,” she said. “As athletes we’re always striving to be better, certainly there were parts of that race that were great for me and one part that wasn’t. That’s just the way sport goes, you’re always trying to get better and for me, I think I had a good race, it wasn’t incredible, but I think in time I’ll look back and appreciate just how hard it was even to get this medal.”