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Distilled disappointment

The dream died especially hard, but Rempel will be back

VANCOUVER -- You know those Olympic faces you see that seem to glow, to the point of exploding?

The sheer, raw joy of the medal winners, who are living a wide-eyed wildest dream? They wrap themselves in their country's flag. They look in the stands searching for family and loved ones. They raise their arms in triumph on the podium, flowers aloft.

hannon Rempel skates to a disheartening 21st in the 1,000-metre long-track event in Richmond.


hannon Rempel skates to a disheartening 21st in the 1,000-metre long-track event in Richmond.

You've seen them. Alex Bilodeau on Cypress Mountain, which seemed like the top of the world. Or snowboarding compatriot Maelle Ricker, the first female to win gold on Canadian soil.

Or how about short-track sprinter Marianne St. Gelais, who, upon winning silver, had a smile that looked like a road map to Nirvana.

Those are the faces most often splashed across the front pages of the country. Cue the medal presentation in front of roaring crowds at B.C. Place. And hurry up, that interview with Brian Williams is waiting.

But there is a flip side, as always. The other faces that tell a much different story. And it can be painful to witness, if you have any heart at all.

To watch Shannon Rempel leave the Richmond Oval the other day, still trying to absorb a 21st-place finish in the women's long-track 1,000 metres, was to watch a heart breaking in slow motion.

She trudged slowly off the track, bewildered. She walked through the media mixed zone, lost in her thoughts, maybe hoping to get back to the athletes' room. To be alone. She almost seemed to be taken aback a little when the microphones and notebooks appeared. She steadied herself.

So how do you explain your season?, someone asked.

"That's the problem," Rempel replied. "I don't really know what happened all season. It kind of ended where it started, which was pretty s ty."

It wasn't just the 1,000, either. Rempel had placed 27th in Tuesday's 500, and left the oval just as bitterly disappointed. Just as lost for answers.

Asked if she got anything out of the races, the Olympic experience, Rempel simply said, "No. Nothing."

The young woman didn't mince words. And no blunt question could hurt her feelings anymore. No criticism would make her feel worse.

"That's because I've trained for four years for this," she said.

Actually, Rempel has trained 14 years for this; since she first took to the long blades as a 10-year-old, and rose through the ranks like a rocket ship with former clubmate and now Canadian teammate Brittany Schussler back at the Sargent Park Oval. She's trained for this since Turin, where as an up-and-coming Olympian she finished 24th in the same distance.

Rempel was pegged as one of Canada's next queens of the oval. And in the three years after the 2006 Games, she continued to climb the world rankings. In 2007, she was ranked 2nd in the 1,000. The following year she was third in the world. She medalled in the 500, too.

All the while, Rempel was tracking for big things in Vancouver. Gold things or silver things or bronze things. You couldn't blame her for lying awake at night and watching herself crossing the finish line and seeing the clock: S REMPEL CAN (1).

But somewhere along the way to Vancouver, it went sideways. And instead, there was a solitary walk off the oval to face questions like, "Where do you go from here?"

"I don't know," Rempel said, searching. "Try different things maybe next year, I'm not sure. I'm going to keep skating, though. This would be a bad way to end it."

At the same time, Rempel refused to concede that the last four years had been for naught. "No, I've had good things from the last three seasons," she reasoned. "I've definitely gained a lot and I've been on the podium before. It's just that this is the year it kind of counted and it didn't come together."

Even through those bright, smiling eyes, the pain was unmistakable. The muscles around Rempel's mouth were quivering. She was just holding it together.

Again, someone asked Rempel how she felt. There are no smart questions in an Olympic mixed zone when dreams die hard.

No more words were required.

"I think it's pretty obvious," she said.

And it was. The face said everything.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2010 D2

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