The Canadian Women’s All-Round speed skating team had just emerged from the World Championships with the best results ever in Canadian speed skating history. Cindy Klassen was crowned World Champion, the first time in 27 years that a Canadian had won. Clara Hughes won the 5000m by a margin of four seconds and defeated Olympic champion Claudia Pecshtein; she finished sixth overall. I came fifth in the 3000m and the 5000m and finished a best ever fourth overall.
Tara Risling, our token ‘mean little beast’, skated to her best finish ever, ending up thirteenth overall. In addition to that, our American teammate Catherine Raney had two fourth place finishes and ended up eighth overall. Within our training group we placed five girls in the top thirteen. Excited and exhausted we made our way to Italy for the second and last leg of our trip, a World Cup in Baselga di Pine.
Baselga di Pine is a small town nestled in the mountains of Northern Italy. The hotel we stayed in only had two external phone lines and no Internet connections but the restaurant had the best built in coffee machine I’ve ever seen. It was hooked up directly to a water source and a milk source, giving us a never-ending supply of cappuccinos, lattes and hot chocolate. We were well taken care of; the food was abundant and delicious, the town was quiet and friendly and the sun shone down on us almost everyday.
The ice was considerably faster in Pine than it had been in Sweden so we were feeling quite good on the ice. The first ever World Cup team pursuit event was held in Pine that weekend. It involved three skaters per team, racing six laps together, in pursuit of a second team starting on the other side of the track. The team with the fastest time would be the winner. We spent some time discussing strategy and practicing starts to ensure that when we got to the race things would go smoothly. We knew we had a good chance of winning, and were motivated to do well.
First we had to race the 3000m. We skated after the men’s 1500m on Sunday. It snowed all morning and they could not flood the ice. Luckily for us the clouds lifted and the sun came out just in time for the start. We were all starting to feel the effects of the intense racing we had been doing, but thanks to the beauty of Xiuli’s training program we were able to push through the hurt and finish well. We finished 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th.
After the 3000m races were done we all felt so tired that we didn’t even want to do the pursuit anymore. All it took was one short race to wipe away any motivation that we had. Immediately after my race I went straight to the washroom to go pee, only to find out a few short minutes later that I had been selected for doping. Stupid mistake. As we still had another race I wasn’t required to report to the doping station until after the pursuit. The irrational stress set in quickly as I was anticipating our 7pm departure from the hotel, to drive to Venice that night. “I won’t have time!” I thought.
We warmed down from the 3000m and warmed up for the pursuit almost simultaneously. As we recovered from the 3000m the motivation and excitement for the pursuit slowly crept back. The atmosphere was almost electric amongst the skaters. Everyone seemed excited to skate a new race. There was nervous chatter throughout the room; we were all watching each other as well as the races that had already started.
Cindy, Clara and I made up Team Canada 1. We were in the last pair against Netherlands 1. Warming up for the race on the ice was hard. I remember thinking “I’m not sure if I can do this!” I was more nervous for this race than I had been for any race all year. The start would be crucial; as we needed to make sure we were all together by the time we hit the first corner.
We switched the lead every lap, and after I pulled the 4th lap I knew that all I had to do was hang on until the end. I could not see the Dutch team on the other side of the track, I could not see the track in front of me, I could hardly even see. But once we crossed the line I could see that we had finished with the fastest time. It felt great to win, because we knew we were capable of it and it was so much fun. We won the first ever team pursuit, I think mostly because we were the only true team who raced together that day.
Of the thirty or so people who stayed around to watch the pursuits, about two stayed to watch the medal presentations. As soon as we had taken our skates off we were ushered to the podium, where the mayor of Baselga di Pine presented each of us with a medal and a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
The podium was quite small and while it held individuals fairly well, cramming nine people onto it proved to be a bit more difficult! There were no spectators left to see us presented with our medals, (my first ever World Cup medal), but I savoured the moment that we shared atop the podium. We had achieved this win by working together as a team, and celebrating it together was special.
Stepping down from the podium is typically a fairly straightforward procedure. I had two choices. I could have jumped from the top down onto the ground or I could step from the top platform to next platform and then onto the ground. The latter seemed to me the riskier of the two, so I chose the former. I did not jump, but stepped down to the next platform.
In less time than it takes to blink an eye, the wooden platform I had stepped on shifted from the metal frame it was sitting on, fell through to the ground and I found myself crashing towards the metal frame with great speed and force. I hit the metal frame with my left knee so hard that the frame bent significantly. The rest of the girls immediately burst out laughing, which is probably what I would have done, while I immediately burst into a string of expletives that would have put the Osbourne’s to shame.
Once the girls saw that I was hurt, the laughter petered out and was replaced with genuine concern. The mayor of Baselga di Pine was extremely apologetic. Unfortunately his sympathy was lost on me as I extrapolated the possible severity of my injury in my mind and instantly concluded that I had shattered my patella and would not skate the rest of the season.
Fortunately I was able to walk and soon realized that I was merely the unlucky recipient of a very bad bruise. I immediately went to see Ed, our massage therapist, who packaged up a bag of snow for me to put on my knee. Slowly it began to numb the pain. I was instantly in a very aggravated mood, and was so livid that such a stupid thing could happen.
To add to my state of discontent, I now had to report to the doping station and produce a urine sample. It was close to 5:30 and our bus was leaving for Venice at 7:00. I still had to get back to the hotel and pack. The doping officials must have thought that I was a very rude and unhappy person. I watched with much impatience and despair as the officer in charge meticulously folded, sealed and signed each form.
We managed to catch the last shuttle back to the hotel, and I was still very much upset about the whole ordeal, I even forgot that we had won the pursuit and I had just received my first World Cup medal. Ed did his best to calm me down; he was being rational and he knew that I would be just fine. When I got back to the room, everyone was packing up with great speed. Tara was still wearing her racing suit while she packed her bike. I was met with a little concern and a fair bit of humour.
As we talked about what had happened I began to see how funny it was. I fell off the podium! Me, who was probably the skinniest skater up there, caused the podium to collapse! The pain was subsiding and although there was some swelling, I could tell with my spidy senses that I hadn’t done any major damage to my knee. We had a good laugh about it and I started to feel muc
h better. The bus was now not leaving until 7:30 and there was plenty of time to pack and eat. Just before we left I gave one of the ladies in the restaurant my flowers.
Back in Calgary I went to see Lorrie, our team physiotherapist. I related the story of my fall to her and could tell that she was stifling her laughter. Once she knew that I also found it funny we had a good laugh about it. She examined my knee and came to the conclusion that I had bruised my fat pad. Had I hit that metal bar with my patella or patellar tendon, the consequences would have been far worse. I was in fact quite lucky that I had fallen on my fat pad instead. It was still tender but would not keep me from any training and would take a few weeks to settle down.
I doubt that I will ever experience anything quite like that again. This is one event that I am not likely forget, first because of the fat pad injury, and second and more importantly because we had won the pursuit as a real team, as friends and as Canadians.