Heather McLean’s sixth day at the International Skating Union bubble in Heerenveen, Netherlands was pretty similar to the five days before it.

She’s been eating socially distanced meals with teammates, being tested for COVID-19 and aside from training sessions, she’s been stuck at the hotel like everyone else.

But the routine is a welcome respite for the 28-year-old Winnipegger and her Canadian long-track speedskating teammates, who are preparing for their first real competition of 2020-21.

The pandemic and a major mechanical breakdown of the ice plant at the national team’s training oval in Calgary wiped out most of the competitive season and severely limited its training activities.

Now, a glimmer of hope. McLean and her 12 teammates are prepping for the first of two World Cup events in Heerenveen Jan. 23-24. The team will remain in the bubble for five weeks, which will also include the world championships beginning Feb. 10.

"I’m the kind of person that really likes my space so a lot of these changes for COVID are actually to my liking," said McLean by telephone from Heerenveen Sunday. "But the most unusual thing so far is just the differences in the warm-up area at the training centre. Usually, they have had an infield gym and all the countries are together...

"It just feels more like our normal training centre in Calgary because all the people we really see are just the rest of our team. It still feels like it’s not an international competition yet because we aren’t mingling with the rest of the countries."

The Canadians will have to deal an extra restriction during their time in Europe. 

"We are required to wear masks while skating on ice and that’s kind of a different role for our federation from other countries, but I feel our country is taking the protocols super seriously, so I do trust it," she said, noting the masks can only come off before races. "And, yeah, I feel pretty safe." 

But Canada’s chances of success might be severely limited with speedskating powers such as the Dutch, Polish, Russians, Americans, Japanese and Germans having all operated under less restrictive regulations.

"Unfortunately most European countries have been training as normal and have held either selection competitions, domestic competitions or training races and they’re even competing in European Championships right now," said McLean. "I would say that the majority of other countries have skated and raced a number of times by now."

For the Canadians, who had a two-week training camp in Fort St. John, B.C., and a few weeks skating on an outdoor oval in Red Deer, Alta., prior to their arrival in Heerenveen, the scant preparation could be a major disadvantage. McLean insists her instincts will kick in.

"It’s not ideal," said McLean. "However, I have been racing now on the World Cup circuit for eight years and I’ve been speedskating since I was really young, so I do think that racing comes quite naturally to me. I know that when race day comes, the adrenaline will be there. I might have to make a few more adjustments than usual, day-to-day between races, re-evaluating and making my race plan.

"I’m a natural competitor as soon as it comes to a race weekend. I’ll be ready to go, no matter what."

McLean was chosen to travel to Heerenveen based on her participation in last year’s world championships. The Canadian team is intact, with the exception of Winnipegger Tyson Langelaar and three others who chose not to attend.

McLean finished 14th in the 500 metres and 18th in the 1,000 metres at those worlds and will compete in her signature events once again.

How does she feel she stacks up against her international rivals?

"It’s a little bit trickier to make those evaluations," said McLean. "We haven’t been training at the oval as normal so we don’t have any training race times and I have no times to compare to what my competitors have done this season. 

"However, going into an Olympic year, my goal is to finish top eight or top six. I really do want to set myself up to be in the running for a podium at the Olympics (in Beijing)."


Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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