Canada’s ‘Golden Girls’ race to the podium

Hockey may be Canada’s game, but it is not the country’s strongest event heading into the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

That title belongs to long-track speed skating.

The women’s team provided nearly a third of Canada’s medals (seven of 24) at the 2006 games in Turin, and the experienced squad is expected to build on that performance if Canada’s hopes to sit atop the medal count in 2010.

“We have a very strong, deep group that we believe in,” Brian Rahill, Speed Skating Canada’s high-performance director told Canwest News Service.

“We’ve enjoyed good results this year, and the focus of the team has been exemplary.”

The Canadian women have been projected to win as many as nine medals, and have been labeled the most talented speed skating team the country has ever assembled.

In an exclusive interview with the Toronto Observer, two-time Olympic speed skating champion, and Olympic analyst Catriona Le May Doan, weighed in on this prediction.

I never predict medals,” she says. “Things can change at any moment.

“But definitely this is the strongest team they’ve ever sent and they’re as prepared as they can be, so it’s very exciting.”

Six of the eight women selected to represent Canada are returnees from 2006, and three of these are serious contenders.

  • Kristina Groves, 33, from Ottawa, (1,000-metres, 1,500m, 3,000m, 5,000m, and team pursuit) will make her second Olympic appearance. She earned two silver medals in Turin, and currently leads the World Cup standings for the 1500m distance. Groves won five medals at the 2008 World Single-Distance Championships, and will skate in five race categories, the most on the team.
  • Christine Nesbitt, 24, from London, Ontario, (500m, 1,000m, 1,500m, and team pursuit) also returns to her second Olympics, after an amazing season.  Nesbitt went undefeated at the 1,000m distance in World Cup competition and trailed only Groves in the 1,500m distance standings.  She is considered the team’s front-runner.
  • Clara Hughes, 37, from Winnipeg, (3,000m, 5,000m) was named Canada’s flag bearer on Jan. 29. She is the leader of the team, having participated in two Summer Olympics as a cyclist, as well as in the past two Winter Games.  Hughes is the defending Olympic champion in the 5,000m distance, but will have to battle to make it back on the podium in Vancouver.

The most decorated Canadian Olympian in history, Cindy Klassen (30, from Winnipeg), will compete in the 1,500m, 3,000m, and 5,000m distances. It’s her third Olympics, but she is an underdog after double-knee surgery forced her to miss the 2008 World Cup season.

Klassen did not reach the World Cup podium in 2009, but looks to rekindle some of her magic that lead to five medals in Turin.

“I don’t know if [my knees] will be back to when I was healthiest, but they’ll be good enough,” she told the Canadian Press.

Shannon Rempel, 25, from Calgary, makes her second Olympic appearance in the 500m and 1,000m events, but is considered a long shot.

As is Brittany Schussler, 24, from, Winnipeg, (1,000m, 1,500m, team pursuit), however she is coming off a breakthrough season earning her a shot in the team pursuit.

Best friends Anastasia Bucsis, 20, and Tamara Oudenaarden, 22, from Calgary, round out the team, providing youth and energy competing in their first Olympics in the 500m distance.

According to Hughes, the unofficial captain of the squad, it is a speed skating team that is not only more skilled, but more tight-knit than any before.

“I’ve always felt for whatever reason like a bit of an outsider,” Hughes told the Toronto Star.

“This is the first time where I feel from my heart I feel like I’m really excited to be on this team and to be with my teammates and to interact with them and feed off of them and be inspired by them.”

The performance of the team pursuit skaters emphasizes Hughes’ words. Together Canada’s skaters have only lost one World Cup pursuit race all season, and are the favourites headed to Vancouver.

However, there are still the other countries to worry about.

The Netherlands, Russia, Japan, Germany, China and Korea all possess strong skaters, and pursuit teams that have shown promise.

German skater Jenny Wolf, and China’s Beixing Wang, have both set 500m world records this season.

There are also proven veterans such as Dutch skaters Annette Gerritsen and Ireen Wust, the Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova, Germany’s Anni Friesinger-Postma and Daniela Anschutz-Thoms, and finally Japan’s Nao Kodaira, all expected to medal in the longer distances.

Nevertheless, the Olympic glare will be aimed squarely on the Canadian women when they hit the oval in Richmond.

(With files from Nicole Watts)