Over the years I’ve written, and spoken, ad infinitum (ad nauseum?) about the moment I first discovered my Olympic dreams. You know – the torch, the ’88 Olympics, Gaetan Boucher, speed skating – that whole bit. If it is possible to pinpoint the one little moment my heart started beating for skating, then I guess it would have to be when we stopped at that Petro-Canada to fill up on gas and I saw the poster advertising the 1988 Olympic Torch Relay. Similarly, I can pinpoint the one little moment my heart stopped beating for skating too.
Typically, when approaching the end of the season, I would feel excited about racing the year’s biggest races but I would also anticipate the rest that was in store after the final lap was done. It was a paradoxical mix of feelings, wanting to race, and race well, but looking forward to the end of the season and the heavenly rest that came with it too. Up until the very instant my blade crossed the finish in line in my final race of the year I would remain incredibly focused and intent on racing my best. But then, at that one little moment when my blade clipped the line, I would feel… relief.
I liken the feeling to how, at the end of summer, there is a day or two when it begins to feel like fall. There is a new crispness in the air, a slight chill to the wind and the leaves start to turn. Then one day you wake up and suddenly all the leaves are on the ground and it’s officially fall. Crossing the line in the last race of the year is like all the leaves have fallen to the ground and it’s time to go dormant for while.
The racing season usually culminates with the World Single Distance Championships, but because they are essentially the same format as the Olympic Games, in an Olympic year that competition is not held. As a result, the World Cup Final and the World All-Round Championships are pushed to mid-March, after the Games. It’s a tough way to end a long season, with the big races already done but with more still to do. It’s like the leaves have already fallen to the ground but summer unexpectedly returns for a week or two before turning to fall again for good.
So, after the Vancouver Olympics I went back to Europe for the World Cup Final and the World All-Round Championships. I was so exhausted and at the time the last thing I wanted was to go back on the road and race again. I remember having to do a couple of solo on-ice workouts in Calgary the week before going back to Europe and it was some of the worst skating I have ever done – my leaves had begun to turn! It sounds ungrateful, but I loathed every moment I was one the road. The hotel, the food, the weather, the same-old-same-old… it was driving me nuts.
However, despite feeling less than inspired off the ice, being on the ice was decidedly different. With the pressure of Vancouver behind me, skating became simple again and I found myself enjoying it so much. When I was on the ice I was so happy to be there. Conversely, at the dark hotel, under the dark skies with the dark circles under my eyes, I felt, umm, differently. But the skating, I felt I could go on forever.
With another big competition to peak for after already peaking for the biggest competition of my life, with waning motivation to boot, I managed to pull out some awesome races. I finished the season with another World Cup title in the 1500m and came second overall at the World All-Round Championships. I also finished the season without the sense of relief I had come to expect for so many years. Strange.
The moment I believe my heart stopped beating for skating came when my blade crossed the finish line after the final lap in the last race of the year and that sense of relief did not follow. Instead, I was overcome with an overwhelming desire for the season to continue on forever. Even though it was already the longest season of my life, I crossed that line and immediately wished so much that I could just keep skating. I felt sad that the season was done, which surprised me because I was so used to feeling that wave of relief wash over me.
Looking back now, I view this moment as the one when my heart quit skating. It seems contradictory, I agree, that I identify this moment, where I wished the season would go on forever, as the one where I unconsciously retired from skating. It happened because I no longer felt the need for the rest required to embrace another season – there was no need for another season. It was the last one and that was the last race. It was my last real race because it was the last one where my heart, gut and mind were working together, striving in concert to skate the fastest time. In the weeks and days leading up to my decision to retire, I slowly realized that without my heart, gut and mind beating in harmony towards one goal, I would never feel truly immersed in pursuing another fast race.
It is true of course, that my last official race – the last one on the books that is – is the one where, several months later, I fell and injured my head. But I don’t really consider that a real race because during that race, and during every other race that season, my heart wasn’t in it. I just didn’t believe it at the time. Besides, don’t they say you’re supposed to go out with a bang?
I don’t regret that it took so long for my gut and brain to catch up, I’m just glad they did. I also don’t regret that I didn’t, at the time, recognize the significance of how I felt at the end of that last season. That’s just the way it went.
The fall colours this year are lovely. Warm days and cool nights combined with cloudless blue skies have led to some breathtaking fall sights this year. We spent last weekend in Fernie, B.C., visiting friends and hitting up the colourful mountain bike trails. I will admit, despite my claim of no regrets, that while floating down a smooth, rolling, insanely fun descent on my mountain bike, smiling ear-to-ear as the red and yellow leaves blurred passed me, for one brief moment I thought to myself, ‘why the hell didn’t I quit sooner?!’