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Klassen turned hockey disappointment into Olympic speedskating glory

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/2/2018 (942 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Team USA dethroned Team Canada Wednesday night in the women's hockey final, it marked the first time in 20 years that the American side was able to capture gold in the event. The last time the United States women won gold — 1998 in Nagano, Japan — was also when Cindy Klassen's Olympic dreams changed drastically.

Klassen always wanted to be an Olympian, but not as a speedskater. Like most young Canadians, Klassen dreamed of wearing the Maple Leaf jersey and representing the country in hockey at the Olympics. She got close to making that dream a reality, too.

Klassen began playing hockey in Winnipeg when she was four years old. She grew up playing with the top boys' teams in the city before transitioning to women's hockey at the age of 16. Hockey Canada took notice of her talent and invited her to Calgary to try out for the national team in 1997 — one year before the '98 Games. Klassen, 18 years old at the time, thought everything was lining up perfectly.

"I really thought this was it. I went out for the tryouts and I thought they had gone well," said Klassen, who now lives and works as a police officer in Calgary. "A couple weeks later when I returned to Winnipeg, I got a phone call saying I didn't make the team. I was pretty crushed. I thought I had a chance, so it was pretty heartbreaking for me, especially since it was a dream I had for so long."

Shortly after, Klassen began her first year of university and needed something other than hockey to occupy her time. It was her parents who recommended that she give speedskating a try.

"My first reaction was 'absolutely not.' I thought there would be no way I'd be caught in one of those tight skin suits and those long blades. They looked funny to me," she said.

Klassen eventually warmed up to the idea and figured she'd try it out to make her parents happy. With her hockey background, she thought it would be a relatively easy transition. It was anything but.

She was "blown away" at how difficult speedskating was. At her first practice, little kids were skating circles around her. Despite the early struggles, she kept at it.

Jeff McIntosh</p><p>/ The Canadian Press</p><p>Canada's Sports Hall of Fame 2017 inductee Cindy Klassen is interviewed following an announcement in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 14, 2017.</p>

Jeff McIntosh

/ The Canadian Press

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame 2017 inductee Cindy Klassen is interviewed following an announcement in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 14, 2017.

"For some reason, I'm not sure what it was, maybe it was the challenge, but I kept going back," she said. "Pretty soon, I was hooked."

When the '98 Games rolled around, Klassen found herself more interested in speedskaters Susan Auch and Catriona Le May Doan than the Canadian women's hockey team.

"I was just in awe of these speedskaters. I just remember thinking to myself, 'You know what, I think I want to go to the Olympics, but for speedskating now,'" she said.

She was hesitant to drop hockey, but with the Canada Winter Games taking place the following year in Corner Brook, N.L., it was the perfect time to fully commit to her new sport.

"I made myself a deal that I would give up hockey for one year, and I'd solely focus on speedskating for one year, and if I made the Canada Games team, I would move to Calgary and pursue speedskating full time," she said.

In that year, not only did Klassen qualify for Team Manitoba's Canada Games team, she also qualified for the junior national team.

"That kind of solidified it for me that I was going to move to Calgary and pursue speedskating to try to make it to the national team," said Klassen, who went on to become a three-time Olympian.

Six Olympic medals — which is a tie with fellow Winnipegger Clara Hughes for the most in Canadian history — 17 World Championship medals and a Lou Marsh Award later, it's safe to say being cut from the women's hockey team was one of the best things to have ever happened to her.

"It's really surreal for me, especially thinking I got cut from the hockey team," she said. "I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I'd end up as a speedskater. And then, to win medals as a speedskater, I feel like in a way, it still hasn't really sunk in."


Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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