Wotherspoon raring to go

Jeremy Wotherspoon has been on two new boots and one new blade for about a month now, and the speedskating star is ready to truly initiate his fresh gear when he makes his season debut at this weekend’s World Cup in Calgary.

Canadian speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon smiles at a team press conference for the Essent ISU World Cup event

CALGARY — Jeremy Wotherspoon has been on two new boots and one new blade for about a month now, and the speedskating star is ready to truly initiate his fresh gear when he makes his season debut at this weekend’s World Cup in Calgary.

The native of Red Deer hasn’t raced in an international competition since breaking his left arm in six spots during a fall in last year’s season-opener in Berlin, and his return is one of several things Speed Skating Canada officials will be keeping a close eye on at the event.

Everyone is curious about how he’ll do, especially Wotherspoon himself.

“I’m pretty interested to see how it goes,” he said Tuesday before practice at the Calgary Olympic Oval.

“It’s been a slower start to the season than I would have liked but I’m feeling better.”

Wotherspoon’s comeback has been anything but smooth thus far, with one notable setback in October at the fall national team World Cup trials, when he qualified in the 1,000 but not in the 500, the distance he’s long dominated.

That means one of the skaters who qualified for the 500 will have to voluntarily step aside — or be bumped — for Wotherspoon to race at the distance and build up Olympic qualification points during one of the two remaining World Cups (Calgary this week and Salt Lake City next) before the Winter Games.

“We’re discussing how we go about it in Salt Lake for sure,” said Brian Rahill, Speed Skating Canada’s sport director, leaving open the possibility it might happen in Calgary.

Even if it doesn’t, Wotherspoon will skate in the 1,000 Sunday, eager to assess where he’s at and see what adjustments he needs to make on his new equipment. The 33-year-old has been gaining speed in recent weeks.

“So far I’ve been better than I was on the old stuff,” he said of the switch.

“I’m pretty happy with how things are going. It takes some time to switch and get used to it, so it was a bit of a risk but I felt better soon enough after that I know it’s the right path.”

Already on the right path are several of his teammates.

Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., Kristina Groves of Ottawa, Clara Hughes of Glen Sutton, Que., and Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., are all pre-qualified for the Olympics and sitting pretty in the leadup to the Games.

For them, the remaining two World Cups and the national Olympic trials are all about building up just right for February, and making the most of the big competitions left.

Nesbitt, on fire to start the season, plans to use Calgary as preparation for competing in Richmond, the Vancouver suburb home to the 2010 oval.

“It’s totally a mini-simulation of the Olympics,” she said. “Obviously it’s not the exact same thing, it’s not the same facility, it won’t be the same intensity of environment, but it’s a really good opportunity to practise racing in front of a hopefully sold-out home crowd.”

Morrison, on the other hand, is looking to reassert himself after skipping the World Cup in Hamar, Norway following a poor performance the previous week at the event in Heerenveen, Netherlands last month.

Instead, he’s been training in Calgary and feels ready.

“Now I feel like I’m skating a lot better,” he said. “I’m acclimatized to the altitude here, I’m used to the fast ice, so I think I’m going to have a good advantage going into the races this weekend.”

Wotherspoon wishes he could say that with the same confidence Morrison has.

He decided to skip the three season-opening World Cups in Europe to focus on his training in Calgary and he needs an international measuring stick to really assess his progress.

And that’s something that, initially at least, won’t be strictly decided by results.

“It’s hard to train properly when you’re travelling and tired and also racing,” he said of the decision to race only in Calgary and Salt Lake City before the Games.

“We wanted to do what we thought would carry over to the Olympics best and that was to just do the North American World Cups.

“I’m not too worried about the results right now. I’d like to of course skate well. I have been not at my best so I’m not going to be crushed if I don’t race personal bests here in the 1,000. I’m more working on some equipment and technical things that I’ve been honing and getting comfortable with the last few weeks. Racing is always a really good test of how those things are going so it’s a good test for me and a building block for the Olympic trials.

“That’s my big goal right now, is being fit and being ready for the Olympic trials.”

Notes: Canada will also be looking to make more progress on securing the maximum quotas for skaters at the Olympics. A country can capture up to four spots in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 and three in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000, based on World Cup results. Also on the agenda is qualifying a skater in each discipline so the team can bring 10 men and 10 women to the Olympics, instead of eight and eight. … Organizers are asking Canadian fans to wear red this weekend, the way they do at Flames games.

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