In spite of challenges, Winnipeg's speedskating pipeline keeps producing Olympians

Winnipeg has added another checkmark to its impressive track record of producing Olympic-class speedskaters.

Despite lack of facilities, Winnipeg produces star speedskaters like Heather McLean, heading to Pyeongchang

Heather McLean looks on after the women's 500-metre race at the 2016 ISU World Cup Speed Skating Finals in Heerenveen, Netherlands. She was named this week as a member of the Canadian team heading to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Getty Images)

Winnipeg has added another checkmark to its impressive track record of producing Olympic-class speedskaters.

The latest star is 25-year-old Heather McLean, named on Wednesday as a member of the Canadian team heading to next month's 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I'll stop smiling as soon as I get back to training and my coach makes me work hard," said McLean, who first laced up at age two at Kirkfield Westwood Community Centre.

She now trains at the Olympic Oval in Calgary and will be racing in the 1,000-metre and 500-metre distances at the Winter Games.

McLean said she is still "processing all of the emotions" and will rely on breathing techniques and meditation to calm herself before her big races. She'll also lean on her teammates.

Heather McLean will be racing in the 1,000-metre and 500-metre distances in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Speed Skating Canada)

"Speedskating is an individual sport but we all train together and we all rely on each other to get through the amount of training that we do. So it's really cool to be a part of that team," she said.

"There are so many strong athletes and we've really been working so hard to bring speedskating back to the top of Canada's success. In Sochi [for the 2014 Winter Olympics] it wasn't as successful as people wanted it to be and we've been working so hard.

"We really want to show Canada that we're a strong team, women and men, and I think we're really going to be ready to perform."

McLean's appointment to the Olympic squad was being celebrated in her home town, where there is little doubt she is a deserving member of Canada's team.

"I've known Heather probably since she was five years old so it's really exciting to see how far she's come," said Elizabeth Williamson Derraugh, executive director of the Manitoba Speed Skating Association.

 "It's incredible, not only for her but for us as an association to see all her hard work and where it's taking her."

Competition for ice time

Just as incredible is that so many talented skaters come out of Manitoba, where speedskating lives in the shadows of hockey and lacks the infrastructure that some other cities have.

The conditions may not be perfect, but that makes us stronger. Winnipeggers  are tough, passionate and hard-working people. That's why we succeed.- Heather McLean

The MSSA has only about 200 active members and competes with dozens upon dozens of hockey teams for ice time inside city arenas.

"We can get ice, if we're lucky, six to eight weeks [in a season]. Eight weeks is pushing it," Williamson Derraugh said. 

"I was recently out in Quebec and they have a lot of members, and [was] asked, 'How do you guys do it?' We don't have the facilities of the places you'd think would be the ones producing all the top athletes but we've always managed to squeak in there somehow."

Typically, short-track speedskating ovals are the same size as an international-sized ice hockey rink. Most city rinks are smaller than that.

Two of those rinks would fit inside a long-track speedskating oval. The only place that can accommodate that in Winnipeg is the Susan Auch Oval, which is part of the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex, but it's only available during winter — and that can be challenging.

Young speedskaters race around the Susan Auch Oval in Winnipeg. (Rob Bye/Winnipeg Speed Skating Club)

"You really have to love the sport of speedskating to train in Winnipeg because the conditions are so tough," McLean said, recalling how cold some of her outdoor training days were.

She and other skaters would motivate themselves by blasting Taylor Swift songs from the outdoor speakers, then rewarding themselves with hot chocolate afterwards.

But it's also those conditions that McLean believes helped mould her into a fierce competitor.

"The conditions may not be perfect, but that makes us stronger," she said. "Winnipeggers are tough, passionate and hard-working people. That's why we succeed." 

Unfortunately, any skater serious about pursuing the sport must eventually move beyond Manitoba's borders. Many, like McLean, go to Calgary, which has a covered oval that allows them to train year-round.

"We call them our 'graduated skaters.' They compete still for Manitoba but are out-of-province for training," said Williamson Derraugh.

Alumni encourage next generation

She praised the mentorship of Manitoba's Olympic alumni for helping keep interest in the sport going in Manitoba, spurring on the next Olympians.

"Because we've had that history, that heritage, of excellent athletes come through our province — through Winnipeg, especially — you get those role models, those idols to look up to. And they inspire the next generation to keep going," Williamson Derraugh said.

Cindy Klassen shows off her gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

She cited Susan Auch and Cindy Klassen as just two of those alumni who have done a lot for the sport.

Klassen, who now lives in Calgary, helped out as a coach when the Manitoba team was recently in that city. Auch still lives in Winnipeg and her children are among those developing their speedskating skills in the city.

McLean said she has been given advice by, and even trained with, Manitoba alumni at the Calgary oval.

"They're so accessible. They're there to chat with if you have any questions and that's meant so much to me," she said.

"My Olympic dreams were fuelled by countless women from Winnipeg, even from my home club in St. James, that were having success on the world stage. These women really made me realize that no matter the training conditions — the brutal Winnipeg winters — it was very possible to become an Olympic speedskater.

"The inspiration from those women still has a huge impact on my perspective to date."

Quality coaching

Another key element to Manitoba's success is quality coaching that gets young skaters eager, involved and equipped with the essential skills, said Williamson Derraugh.

"We've been really lucky to have great coaches in the past and right now, who get them prepared and ready for that move on to Calgary. There's a nice pathway set out for them through our association," she said.

Manitoba's current provincial coach, who also happens to be her brother, is Tyler Williamson Derraugh. He spent about 10 years with the national team on the world championship circuit and missed going to the Olympics by one spot.

"To have him come back and help now has been really great," Elizabeth Williamson Derraugh said.

Susan Auch, left, and Catriona Le May Doan show off their medals after the women's 500-metre speedskating final at the Winter Olympics at Nagano in 1998. (Associated Press)

"Coaching is such an important part of it all and [it's] sometimes underlooked that that's how you get your athletes to stay involved and go to the next level."

She would like to one day see that "next level" happening in Winnipeg, so the athletes won't need an asterisk beside their name, saying they train in Calgary.

"The dream is to one day have that covered oval with one of the short-track facilities within the oval and maybe a hockey rink in there, too. It could be a multi-sport purpose," Williamson Derraugh said.

"There's a committee that's working toward hopefully having something like that here one day, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of money.

"But it would be amazing to think if we had that, the amount of athletes we could produce, considering how well we've done without something like that."

Winnipeg's speedskating Olympians

  • Clara Hughes
Clara Hughes celebrates her 5,000-metre speedskating bronze medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. (The Canadian Press)
A cyclist and speed skater, she is the only person ever to have won multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Games.

She won two bronze medals in cycling at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, she won a bronze medal in speed skating in the 5,000-metre event, just ahead of Klassen.

Hughes won her first gold medal in the speedskating 5,000 metre and a silver medal in the team pursuit as part of the Canadian team at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.

She added a speedskating bronze in the 5,000 metre at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, her final Olympic event.

  • Cindy Klassen

A six-time medallist with one gold, two silver and three bronze medals at the Winter Olympics. 

She is the only Canadian Olympian to win five medals in a single Games and the first female speedskater to win five medals in a single Olympics. She did that at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

Mike Ireland catches his breath after a 500-metre heat in Salt Lake City, Utah at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. (CP)
She is the current world-record holder in the 3,000 metre and also holds the Canadian records for the 1,500 metre and 5,000 metre.

Klassen is tied with fellow Winnipegger Clara Hughes for the title of Canada's all-time most-decorated Olympian.

  • Susan Auch

Auch won bronze in the 3,000-metre relay at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and silver in the 500 metre at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway and the 1998 Games at Nagano, Japan.

She also competed at the 2002 Games at Salt Lake City but didn't make it to the podium.

She was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in 2003 and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2010, and is currently the interim CEO of Speed Skating Canada.

  • Mike Ireland
Shannon Rempel acknowledges fans after competing in the women's 1,000-metre long-track speedskating event at the Olympic Winter Games in Richmond, B.C., in 2010. (The Canadian Press)
Ireland has represented Canada in speedskating at the 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics.

Although he has been held off the podium at the Olympics, Ireland holds four bronze and two silver medals, and a gold medal at the world championships

  • Shannon Rempel

Rempel is an ​Olympic silver medallist from the 2006 Winter Olympics in the team pursuit.

She has also participated in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, in the 500 metre and 1,000 metre distances, and still holds the Canadian junior records in the 500 metre and 1,000 metre.

  • Brittany Schussler

Schussler has won two gold and two silver medals in the world championships. 

She has appeared in three Olympic Games — Turin in 2006, Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014.

Brittany Schussler finishes her race in the women's 3,000-metre speedskating event during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (The Canadian Press)

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt began his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009.