'I stuck with it': Susan Auch speaks at event encouraging young girls in speed skating

Susan Auch will talk about what pushed her through the challenges she faced as a young female athlete at Strong Girls on Ice, an event aiming to empower young girls and women to stay active and stick with speed skating Suday.

Champion speed skater says confidence and empowerment are key to success for female athletes

Former Olympic speed skater Susan Auch will speak at at the Strong Girls on Ice event Sunday at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

She's competed in five Olympic Games, bringing three medals home for Canada in a speed skating career that spanned a more than decade, but Susan Auch is the first to admit she hasn't always feel so comfortable in her skates.

The Winnipeg-born speed skater will talk about what pushed her through the challenges she faced as a young female athlete at Strong Girls on Ice on Sunday, an event aiming to empower young girls and women to stay active and stick with speed skating.

"I really believe that I went as far as I did because I stuck with it," Auch told CBC News before the event, which runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex.

But that wasn't always easy, says Auch, who played many different sports growing up, and admits her decision to dedicate herself to speed skating was challenging at times.

"It's a different sport and I was a little uncomfortable about that at first," she said. "I went to public skating session with my speed skates and I covered them with fuzzy skate covers so people wouldn't notice them.

"But eventually the boys at school, who were playing hockey, started challenging me to race them and that was really empowering to me."

Canada's Catriona Le May Doan , right, and Susan Auch show off their medals on the victory stand after the women's 500 meter speed skating final at the Winter Olympics at Nagano on Saturday, Feb. 14, 1998. Lemay-Doan gold and Auch silver.(AP Photo/Michael Probst) (Associated Press)

She says as she progressed in the sport she had to deal with other issues, including the muscles she was building.

They made her self conscious, she says, but she now realizes they're what set her apart on the speed skating oval.

"Muscles weren't really that cool for girls," she said. "But it really changed to being something really special and I think that's the conversation we need to get into with young people that feel self conscious because people are looking at them or they're being noticed.

"That thing that makes them feel like people are looking at them because they're different, is what makes them special when they're older."

'Getting a voice'

The Strong Girls on Ice event comes at the end of a week of disturbing accounts of sexual abuse by by former US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and news of an ongoing investigation into allegations Speed Skating Canada Head Coach Michael Crowe had sexual relationships with American athletes. 

Crowe has been put on a leave of absence by Speed Skating Canada, which has launched an investigation. Although the organization has not given a reason for the actions. 

While Auch, who is the interim CEO of Speed Skating Canada, says it's important not to "try people in the media", she says the conversations happening right now are important for young girls in women working to be the best in their sport.

"I think that what is really special is that women and people who feel harassed are getting a voice — they're getting a forum right now," she said. "We do have to be fair but we have a forum and I think that is empowering to people who feel unjustly treated.

"I think we, women and girls, I hope, are feeling more empowered and they feel like they can go somewhere if something's up."

Even playing field

Auch says the playing field between boys and girls in sports has improved from when she first started out, but she says more can be done to encourage young girls to try sports.

And that includes having a discussion about how we treat transgender athletes in sports.

"We need to focus on people as people," she says."It doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy, or if you're LGBTQ.

"I would love for sport to be the most even playing field for all people to be on and to try and find a place for all people to have equal access to sport."

Susan Auch makes a turn during the second of two races in the women's 500m Olympic speedskating competition in Salt Lake City, Feb. 14, 2002. (Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press)

The Strong Girls on Ice event will include a confidence boosting session where girls will learn about why self-confidence is important, how to feel better about themselves, and how to reduce negative self-talk.

Auch hopes the event will encourage young girls to try speed skating and find the rush of confidence that comes from reaching their goals.

"I might be biased but I think speed skating is the best sport in the world," she said. "A girl, getting on the ice and sliding all around, not knowing what to do, and then eventually getting able to skate on her own power — that's empowering.

"To be able to get stronger and get faster and see your improvements gives you confidence and eventually you either stay with the sport or you don't, but the feeling of being able to do it is a big confidence booster."

With files from Nadia Kidwai