Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Will the feel-good vibe ever fade?

Athletes like Klassen, Rempel and Parrott are still riding the Olympic wave

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Clara HUGHES received the Order of Canada.

Jon Montgomery and Alex Bilodeau presented an award at the Junos.

Jennifer Botterill was given a standing ovation prior before a ceremonial puck drop at a Maple Leafs game.

Yes, it's been almost two months since the torch was extinguished after this country's greatest Olympic Games ever -- the most gold medals won of any nation -- but clearly, the hangover from Vancouver still lingers. The exposure, especially for medal winners, has been unprecedented.

It continued in Montreal on Friday night during a nationally televised gala ceremony for 150 Canadian Olympians who competed in the 2010 Games, at which time the federal government cut $1.7 million in cheques for all medal winners ($20,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, $10,000 for bronze). They even held a parade.

Yet while the Games unquestionably triggered a love affair between Canadians and their Olympic athletes, the residual effect was not all about adulation, money or free dinners. In fact, for some local athletes, the legacy of Vancouver is more about resolve, redemption and the lure of success in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

Recently, the Free Press sat down with speedskaters Cindy Klassen, Shannon Rempel and Kyle Parrott to reminisce about Vancouver, speculate on their futures and whether Canada's new-found toe-touching with Olympians will take permanent root or become a fleeting fancy.

-- -- --

Before Cindy Klassen became a national icon, before she won a historic five medals at the Turin Games in 2006, her mind often wandered ahead to Vancouver 2010.

"Even before Torino, we found out the Games were going to be in Canada," Klassen said. "That's something that I had my eyes set on in Torino. That's what I was aiming for."

But for Klassen, the golden girl in Italy, everything that could have gone wrong in the four years preceding Vancouver did. One season ended with a car crash that almost took the life of her sister, Lisa. Another ended due to a degenerative knee condition that led to a double operation and a recovery program that dragged on months longer than expected.

As a result, Klassen spent a bulk of her time leading up to Vancouver rehabbing in a swimming pool, not training and competing on the speedskating oval.

To make matters worse, her old coach, Neal Marshall, resigned after a dispute with Speedskating Canada.

"There were definitely challenges," she said. "There were a lot of things that weren't optimal. I look at them as challenges that, hopefully, I can grow from, not just as an athlete but as a person."

Which brings us to our theory on Klassen's future: The disasters that cost her any hope of reaching the podium in Vancouver will tempt the 30-year-old to continue competing if her knees hold up under the pounding. So she doesn't walk away asking herself, "What if?"

"Well, I don't feel cheated, or anything like that," Klassen said after our theory was posited. "I mean, it's just the way that life goes. But I would like to see what would happen if I had a full year of regular training. I would like to see if I could get back into top shape. But right now I haven't decided whether I'm going to continue, but I'm itching to train right now."

In fact, her eyes absolutely glow when she talks about returning to the oval. And in the same breath, the speedskater mentions the inspiration of teammate Clara Hughes, who won her sixth Olympic medal, a bronze, in Vancouver at age 37.

"So it's not out of the question, continuing on," Klassen said. "And my knees, they're good enough that I can train the way that I want to. I don't think they're going to hold me back.

"So there's no reason not to keep going. I love the sport and I always told myself that when it becomes like work, that's when I need to stop. But right now, I feel motivated to train, so..."

In many ways, it turns out that one of the residual effects of the Vancouver Games could be that Canada's most decorated Olympian (along with Hughes, who retired after the 2010 Games) is even more determined to shoot for Sochi, or at least the 2010-11 World Cup season.

"Definitely. I would take it one year at a time," Klassen said. "I feel so blessed to be an athlete. It would be great to see what I could do."

Still, like every Canadian Olympian, it's the echoes of the crowds in Vancouver that still reverberate in her mind, regardless of where she finished.

"It was incredible, the support that we had," Klassen said. "I never expected it to be that big. When I go to the line (prior to a race), I try to be stone-cold and focused. But the first time they announced my name when I was on the line, the crowd was so loud that I was smiling. It was such a special moment."

Like Klassen, the 2010 Games didn't go as planned for fellow Winnipegger and Canadian speedskating teammate Shannon Rempel.

"True," Rempel concurred, managing a smile.

After all, Rempel, a silver medallist in Turin as a member of the Canadian pursuit team, had huge hopes entering a Games on home soil. She'd been on the podium at World Cups and ranked in the top 10. But somewhere between 2009 and Vancouver, it all went sideways for Rempel, who finished 21st in the 1,000 metres and 22nd in the 500 metres.

So has she spent the last two months kicking her cat?

"No, I have nothing to be mad at," she said. "I couldn't be mad at myself. I did everything that I could. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the program. I know I trained hard. But it was frustrating.

"I kind of knew going in (to the Games) that I'd have to change my perspective on it to enjoy the experience," she continued. "Because I knew the results weren't going to be what I wanted them to be. That helped the overall feeling of it.

"I wanted to enjoy the races. I knew my whole family would be there and sharing it with them. Still, it was emotional crossing the line, knowing that they were all there and I didn't have a result I was happy with."

Just as the Vancouver Games might have represented a watershed moment for how Canadians view their Olympians, the competition is also a way station for athletes.

For some, like Minnedosa's 24-year-old Kyle Parrott, it's all about experience. For others, like Hughes, it's a swan song.

For Rempel, however, Vancouver marked a turning point in the 25-year-old's career. Like a golfer tweaking his swing, or a hockey player trying to bulk up in the summer. Like Klassen, Rempel has tasted success. Unlike Klassen, she refuses to believe she's reached her Olympic potential.

"Definitely things are going to change for me next year. I'm going to try different things, maybe a new coach," she ventured. "I think my body just needs a new training style. It's been nice for the last three weeks not to worry about it. I know I'm going to continue skating and I know that I'll be motivated to do it, but right now I don't have the desire. But it will come.

"I've learned a lot in the last four years that I can take forward. I'm determined to fix whatever the problem was and I know I'm capable of so much more," she said.

"What's motivating me is that I haven't reached my potential yet. There's no way I'd walk away from the sport knowing that."

Is this determination the result of coming up a bit short in Vancouver?

"The problem wasn't that I was a bit short," Rempel said. "I was skating in the B group. I wasn't even in the top 20 this year.

"I'll for sure take it year by year and hope I improve, or at least get back to where I was, and then I'll feel happier about a lot of things."

So not everybody left Vancouver basking in the glow of the Games. Yet the general public -- in particular young, impressionable schoolchildren -- remain smitten by those who so proudly wore the Maple Leaf.

"That's the sad part. It's this huge party for two weeks and now it's over," medallist Kristina Groves told the Toronto Sun recently.

"Every day, I get probably two or three invitations (to speak). I feel like other (athletes) out there must be getting requests until the end of time. People are still keen and they want to have us out there."

But let's face it, Vancouver during the Games was a bubble. What happens after it pops, as the athletes disperse across the country after the torch has been extinguished. After all the anthems have been played and medals hung around necks.

"You mean once we're back in the real world and back to the grind?" Parrott said. "Obviously, if you said before your goal was to be in the Olympics, the initial reaction from someone you told that to would be smaller than now, when you say you went to the Vancouver Olympics. So that bubble's still there and you're riding it a little still. But we'll see when we get into next year and start racing (at World Cups) how much of a difference it's really going to make.

"The reality of it is that life is life and it's not really going to change that much. You still go home to the same people you went home to before. You still have the same friends, the same everything. So nobody treats you any differently."

Still, the Olympic gravitas, in both scale and length, is fading slower than ever before. Athletes like Parrott, Rempel and Klassen make no secret of wanting a taste of the feeling again.

"Before the Olympics, for sure, you never really could see what the peak of sport was," Parrott explained.

"You knew it was out there, almost this rumour about what the highest level of sport is. Since then, I've seen it. So I know that reference point of where I am right now (as a competitor) to the highest level.

"Yeah, you definitely get this clear, definitive point of that's where it is, and this is where I am. And you want it. I can see it now. So I think it will become a lot easier to grab a hold of it and to actually reel it in."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2010 D4

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