Speed skating team has the right mix

The mix, Speed Skating Canada believes, is just right.

Jeremy Wotherspoon

Jeremy Wotherspoon

The mix, Speed Skating Canada believes, is just right.

Clara Hughes, Cindy Klassen and Jeremy Wotherspoon provide an aura of success and veteran know-how. Kristina Groves, Christine Nesbitt and Denny Morrison look to be right at their peak. Brittany Schussler, Jamie Gregg and Lucas Makowsky offer potential, both for the present and the future.

All that remains now for the eight women and eight men named to the long-track speedskating team for the Vancouver Olympics on Monday is to deliver, and that won’t be easy.

Expectations are sky-high for the speedskaters, who have enjoyed frequent international success over the past four years since winning eight medals at Turin in 2006, and who are some of the country’s biggest names heading into the Games.

They have about a month left to finalize their preparations, and capitalize on the opportunity in front of them.

“I think things worked out in our favour,” said Brian Rahill, Speed Skating Canada’s high performance director. “We have strong veterans of Olympic Games and of major events that can do very well.

“We have another component of skaters that are part of our national program that this will be another stepping stone in our development, and that could also surprise us in their development. And then there’s a smaller group that are there a little bit more to gain experience from these Games and prepare more for 2014.”

Hughes, a five-time Olympic medallist headed into her fifth Olympics, Klassen, Canada’s most decorated Olympian with six medals after winning five at the Turin Games, and Wotherspoon, whose Olympic struggles are well documented but is a highly respected team leader, fit right into the first category.

All are capable of delivering high level performances and will help their teammates both on and off the ice. Hughes is Speed Skating Canada’s nominee to be the country’s flagbearer at the opening ceremonies.

“It would be amazing,” said Hughes. “If it’s not me, it’s going to be an amazing athlete … if it was me, I would be over the moon.”

Groves, Nesbitt and Morrison are the team’s top medal threats.

Groves, a five-time medallist at the 2008 world championships, has two World Cup wins in the 1,500 this season and has been following a steady progression to peak right for the Games.

Nesbitt is the defending world champion in the 1,000 metres and has dominated all season, winning all four of her World Cup races at the distance plus two more in the 1,500.

Morrison has shaken off his traditional slow start by winning a combined three bronze medals in the 1,000 and 1,500, his specialities.

“I’m just so thankful to be part of this ridiculously strong team,” said Groves.

Schussler, Gregg and Makowsky have been providing a push to their more established teammates, making breakthroughs by winning World Cup medals this season.

If everything goes right on any given day, they could do the same thing at the Richmond Olympic Oval next month, although they still have room to grow.

They can also skate without the burden of heavy external expectations.

“I don’t feel any pressure coming from fans and media,” said Schussler. “I know myself what I’m capable of and hopefully I show it when we’re racing in Vancouver.”

Rounding out the squad are: Mathieu Giroux, Kyle Parrott, Mike Ireland and Francois-Olivier Roberge for the men, and Shannon Rempel, Anastasia Bucsis and Tamara Oudenaarden for the women.

Aside from the veteran Ireland, they are mostly skaters whose best is yet to come, particularly young sprinters Bucsis and Oudenaarden.

The skaters will now break off into their individual training groups, preparing for a Continental Qualifier event Jan. 23-24 in Calgary. Everyone on the Olympic team is expected to skate as long as the United States send its top athletes.

After that it’s off to Vancouver, with the Canadians currently planning to arrive Feb. 5.

“We’re going to work at different times toward making sure they become a team as much as possible, because we believe there’s positive energy that can come of it,” said Rahill. “Mostly we’re going to be really focusing on building the team approach to deliver what the athletes need at Games time.”

Notes: The Canadian team is proceeding as usual while bribery allegations against coach Ingrid Paul stemming from the 2006 Olympics are investigated by the Dutch Olympic and speedskating bodies. Rahill said he’s not heard from the Dutch where they’re at with their probe, and he’s not pursuing it, either. He asked the entire team to close ranks around Paul. “I said, ’Right now someone is attacking one of ours and it’s up to us to be there for him or her when someone does that if we’re a true team,”’ he said. “She’s part of our family right now and people have all taken that to heart.”