Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Klassen's grit inspires team, fans

Skating phenom won't quit, even with pain in every stride

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VANCOUVER -- In many ways, Cindy Klassen is a ghost of the Richmond Oval.

There is no mob of reporters waiting for her when she walks off the ice, often long before the event's climax. No posing with medals, no press conferences reliving her life story; how the daughter of East Kildonan took up speed skating at age 19, getting passed by 11 year olds, yet won her first Olympic medal in Salt Lake just three years later.


Then five more in Turin, where Klassen was Canada's poster girl of the Games.

She was a star. She was Canada's Michael Phelps.

But in Vancouver, the magic is gone, and not a peep of complaint out of the 30-year-old prodigy about what might have been.

You see, the muscles in Klassen's knee caps are dying. Have been for some time. They tried non-invasive surgery as far back as 2007. It didn't work. So doctors tried again. No response.

Finally, in the spring of last year, an orthopedic surgeon performed what the Speed Skating Canada's Olympic program director, Brian Rahill, called "the most invasive" procedure to address what doctors call "patellar tendonopathy." Rahill described it as "the death of tissue in the petellar tendon," under the knee cap.

A decade of training and competing in a sport that puts so many hard miles on the lower back and knees had taken its toll.

"Cindy did everything she could," Rahill told the Free Press on Tuesday. "Obviously, when it came time to recover from the surgery the time lines we were facing to bring her back from the physical readiness to perform got pushed back.

"But because of the type of athlete she is and the commitment to her training, and her willingness to overcome the pain she was feeling, we still thought it was possible for her to be, perhaps, in contention at these Games," he added. "Obviously, that was an optimistic target."

In fact, Klassen is skating in pain with every single stride. "Very much," Rahill said. "Even right now she's skating and it's a psychological decision to overcome the pain and still perform."

Yet Klassen still qualified for the Canadian women's team, one of the best in the world, in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000, the latter scheduled Wednesday. And she still leaves her teammates in awe, even after finishes of 14th in the 1,000 and 21st in the 1,500 -- events in which Klassen still holds world record times.

"I think what she's done is absolutely amazing," gushed fellow Manitoban Kyle Parrott, a 24-year-old competing his first Games. "All the athletes who've gone through what she's gone through -- or wouldn't have gone through what she's gone through -- would quit. For her, it was purely a matter of time line.

"In my opinion, she would have got back to where her greatest performances ever. It was just a matter of time for her to build up to that. She came from far away from where she is now and if she continues to go she'll get even further."

Rahill was asked, "What if?", too. What if Klassen's knees hadn't betrayed her?

"Would six more months make a difference?," he said, repeating the question. "I can't answer that with any certainty. But she wanted to give this a go."

Against the odds, Klassen decided to have the surgery, if only because it gave her an outside shot at performing in Vancouver, in front of an Olympic home crowd.

It wasn't an easy decision.

"I said to Cindy, "You've given this country everything. You don't owe us anything. But we'll be behind you, whatever you need," Rahill recalled telling Klassen.

At this point, I looked up from taking notes. Rahill's voice was faltering. His eyes were brimming with tears.

"I get choked up when I talk about athletes like her," Rahill explained. "Cindy had her time in the limelight. But in many ways, it would have been nice for her to get the limelight at home after giving Canada so much."

Klassen refuses to feel sorry for herself. No matter how many times she's asked, Klassen will tell you she just wanted to experience an Olympic Games. To hear the crowd.

She doesn't talk about the pain. She skates. She watches silently as teammates such as Kristina Groves and Christine Nesbitt take her place on the podium she owned in Turin.

And Klassen still keeps her patented smile while graciously answering questions for the few reporters that call her name in the mixed zone.

The other day, for example, someone asked Klassen about the unfortunate fate of teammate and fellow Winnipegger Brittany Schussler, who lost her blade edge only moments before racing in the 1,500. A dark horse in the event, a devastated Schussler finished second last, after a technician handed her re-sharpened skates only moments before the biggest race of her young life.

"She was tough," Klassen said. "She was brave. She went out and raced and did the best that she could with that. It was a gutsy performance."

Right back at ya, Cindy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2010 C5

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