Few athletes in this country are as reliably successful as Canada’s short track speed skaters.
If you’re not familiar with the sport, short track is the calamity-prone version of speed skating, with nimble racers who whip NASCAR-style around a hockey rink-sized track. Helmets and cut-resistant gloves are essential.
In the first two World Cup events this season, Canada’s short track skaters have won 12 medals, including four gold. They’ll try for more this week at the third stop, in Shanghai, China.
Canada — in particular, Quebec — is a factory for short track superstars. Only South Korea and China have won more Olympic medals in the sport. And, three months before the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Canadian roster remains strong and deep as young skaters rise up to join the team’s established veterans.
The factory is humming.
Canada’s 12 World Cup medals this season have been produced by athletes born between 1984 and 1996.
That’s a 12-year gap. Kenny Loggins to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Beverly Hills Cop to Independence Day. Or 33-year-old Olympic champion Charles Hamelin to his heir apparent, 21-year old Sam Girard.
On the women’s team, three-time Olympic medallist Marianne St-Gelais is 27 years old, while the highly touted Kim Boutin will turn 23 in December (Home Alone and Forrest Gump were released in their respective birth years, in case you were wondering).
While Hamelin, from Sainte-Julie, Que., and St-Gelais, from Saint-Félicien, Que., may be the established royalty, it’s the mid-90s babies, Girard and Boutin, who have risen to starring roles this World Cup season, months before their first Olympic Games.
Girard has won four of Canada’s five men’s World Cup medals so far, while Boutin has five of the seven women’s podiums. Both young skaters collected them in a combination of individual and relay races, and both ascended from a place of calm — albeit of a different nature.
Into the wild
Girard is from Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., a forested municipality traversed by a two-lane highway, three hours northeast of Quebec City. The population is listed as 540 on the 2016 Census. It’s enveloped by swaths of boreal forest — or “the woods” in Girard’s words — and it’s among the balsam firs and white spruce that he feels most comfortable.
“No cell phones, no TV, nothing, no sounds,” he says. “You’re just there and you’re enjoying being calm.”
Girard learned to fish, hunt and trap from his grandfather, Gaetan Girard, during breaks from training in nearby Saguenay, Que.
“It’s where we come from,” says Girard.
The Quebec wilderness is imprinted on Girard (literally, in the case of the tattoo on his left forearm). It’s with him even thousands of kilometres away at World Cups in Europe and Asia.
“When you go hunting and you have to shoot an animal, your adrenalin is at 100 per cent and you have to be really sharp,” says Girard.
“I think the race is similar a little bit. You have to be ready. You have to be aware of everything.”
Whereas Girard gathers strength by getting away from civilization, Boutin had to escape the rink to find her own peace.
Shortly before Christmas in 2015, she had the deep sense something was wrong.
“I was really sad and not happy,” says Boutin.
At the time, her identity was dominated by speed skating, and her self-criticism extended to how she was relating to the world around her, including friends and family.
“I didn’t like the way my personality was going,” says Boutin.
She wanted to quit outright.
“I was completely selfish about skating and I didn’t want to be that person,” says Boutin. “So I really took the time to consider what I wanted to do in my life.”
Along with her coach, physician and sports psychologist, Boutin decided to take a six-month break during which she avoided speed skating and relaxed away from the rink.
She returned last season and finished third in the 1,500-metre world rankings, but this season she’s reached new heights.
Boutin had never collected more than two medals combined in the first two World Cups of a season. This year she won five — three individual silvers, plus a silver and a bronze in the relay.
“I feel it was the most important thing that happened to me because I feel really well right now,” says Boutin.
Their sport is frenetic, sometimes chaotic, but it seems Girard and Boutin have both figured out how to become Canada’s newest Olympic medal threats.