Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Speedskaters are confident

Feeding off the high expectations

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VANCOUVER -- One by one they stepped up to the stage, all grinning from ear to ear and all displaying just a hint of the same attitude. Confidence.

Canada's 16-member Olympic long-track speedskating team that features six Manitobans was introduced to the international media at Speed Skating Canada House near the Olympic Oval on Tuesday, just five days in advance of what many are hoping -- no, expecting -- to be another medal haul.

Yes, if Canada is to come through on its goal to "Own the Podium" and grab more medals than any other nation then the speedskaters will have to contribute, big time, again.

After all, four years ago in Turin the long-track squad accounted for eight of Canada's 24 medals -- five alone by Cindy Klassen and another by Clara Hughes, our flag-bearer.

And, you know what, they're cool with those mighty expectations.

"I'm proud to be a part of this team," said Hughes. "I'm proud to have the expectation of great success and have people believe in us. We don't need to have those expectations to perform and it's not stressful at all that they're there.

"It's just a really good team and we really mesh well together. It's my favourite team I've ever been on."

But, understandably, it's also a different team than the bunch that dominated in Italy in 2006. Klassen, for example, isn't the favourite in her events after working to recover from two knee surgeries and while Hughes is still posting phenomenal times in the 5,000 metres, she is 37.

Canada's best medal hopes at the oval are Christine Nesbitt, Kristina Groves and Denny Morrison while the overall depth that includes the likes of Winnipeggers Shannon Rempel and Brittany Schussler and Minnedosa's Kyle Parrott always makes our nation favourites in the pursuit events.

The other Manitoban on the team, Winnipegger Mike Ireland, is strictly a sprint specialist and is a longshot for the podium.

But, again, there is an understated confidence among them and perhaps it's born from being around greatness every day at training.

And there's an excitement -- not a fear -- of trying to match all those lofty expectations in front of a home crowd. So, collectively, they'll soak it all up like sponges and then try to use that energy positively when they step to the starting line.

"I already know that the opening ceremonies are going to be the coolest experience of my life," said Schussler. "We're all so excited because it's getting so close.

"I guess the first major Olympic thing we did as a team was go to the Olympic Village and get all our clothing. It was awesome. Cindy and I were in our room ripping open all of this stuff like little kids.

"You can get to the point where the tendency as a skater is to analyze your training every day, every stride. It's 'How am I doing?' But now I'm trying to stay laid back and enjoy this experience as much as I can.

"That's what will make for the best experience for me."

Not everyone will react in the same manner, however. Schussler spoke of the benefit of being in Turin four years ago as an alternate and how that experience helped in her preparations for these games.

A guy like Parrott, for example, will be stepping onto the ice in front of a home crowd carrying the weight of a nation as an Olympic rookie.

"I don't know if I fully realize how big it is yet," said Parrott. "But when I go to the line a lot of times my glasses are my blinders... it shuts off the whole crowd, the track, the starter, the other guy on the other line and your coach on the other side.

"A lot of people when they're on the line they're chanting to the crowd, 'Give me some energy' but I just like to be myself and get right into it.

"I'm going to have fun, no matter what. It's almost like rolling the dice -- some days you're going to be good, some days you're not."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2010 C5

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