The Roadrunner reborn: Charle Cournoyer wants more in Pyeongchang
Relative of Montreal Canadiens great is ready to strap on the boots for Canadian short track speed skating
Skating cuts deep in Charle Cournoyer's family.
That's no surprise when you consider he's a distant cousin of Yvan Cournoyer, the 10-time Stanley Cup winner and former captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
The speedy Yvan was known as the Roadrunner during his time in the National Hockey League. He credited that swiftness to his long skate blades — a tip his young cousins picked up on.
At three years old, Charle Cournoyer's mother deemed him too young to strap on those long blades. Charle sat by his mother's side watching brother Vincent, then seven, begin his short track speed skating career.
Charle begged his mother to let him skate: "I wanna get on the ice. I wanna do something."
One year later, Charle's wish was fulfilled, and he hasn't looked back since.
Cournoyer experienced success earlier than most — at age 22 he was the youngest skater on Canada's short track squad in Sochi, where he won a surprising bronze in the 500 metres.
A rocky interlude
What followed wasn't as shiny.
Surgery on a dislocated shoulder right after the 2014 Games sidelined the Boucherville, Que., native after the Olympics, before a broken foot in September of that year ended his 2014-15 season.
Finally healthy for 2015-16, Cournoyer picked up his first individual World Cup victory in the 1,000, to go along with three other podium finishes. The 2016-17 season was a repeat of Sochi — individual success for Cournoyer scuttled by team failure in the relay (the Canadian men missed qualifying for the final at the 2014 Olympics).
2017-18 has been different, as the relay team has won two consecutive World Cup races to kick off the season.
"I would say the key for us, the reason why we did so well this season, was because we did so bad last season," Cournoyer, now 26, says. "We were able, at the end of last season and through the summer, to point out what we did wrong and what we have to work on to achieve a medal at the Olympic Games."
The two gold medals mean that Canada has already qualified for the men's relay in Pyeongchang. The rest of the season will be spent attempting to qualify for individual events, trying out different skaters and learning how opponents will adjust to what now appears to be a Canadian powerhouse.
Back on the podium
Cournoyer, meanwhile, is focused on taking home another Olympic medal. To that end, he's broadened his focus beyond the 500.
"Everything I've done so far is to get to that podium," he says.
"I'm aiming for a better performance on other distances than 500 metres, so I've been working on my 1,000 metres and 3,000 metres the past few years," Cournoyer says. "I just want to show the world that I'm actually really good."
Cournoyer also hopes to use his experience to help some of the younger skaters, like Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., native Samuel Girard, 21, and Pascal Dion, 23, from Montreal.
Cournoyer took specific interest in Dion, in whom he says he sees himself. Dion enters the PyeongChang Olympics in a similar spot to where Cournoyer was four years ago, with little exposure to international competition.
Perhaps, Cournoyer could be like an older brother to them, just as Vincent is to him.
"I've always looked up to my brother. I've always kind of tried to not beat him, but do just like him. My brother has always been really encouraging to me," Cournoyer says.
If Vincent is his biggest inspiration, then decorated Canadian short track speed skater Marc Gagnon is a close second.
Cournoyer's first Olympic memory wasn't at Sochi — it is from 16 years earlier and waking up in the middle of the night to watch Gagnon's relay team skate to gold at the 1998 Nagano Games.
The Roadrunner returns
Derrick Campbell was also on that relay team and now serves as the head coach of the men's national short track team. He's coached Cournoyer since 2011 and sees one key similarity with Gagnon: a drive to win.
"The biggest improvement that he's made is he's really developed his 1,000 metres," Campbell says. "I think tactically he's made improvement, just with his racing skills, execution of race strategy.
"Compared to where we were this time [before] Sochi, he's a much better skater now."
Campbell wants Cournoyer to improve his consistency, because he says the talent is there, and he admires the approach Cournoyer has taken off the ice.
"From the relay event, he's developed into more of an active leader in the group," says Campbell, 45. "His understanding of the event is very high and he's taking a stronger leadership role within the group. He himself is making various adjustments with what he can do in the relay to become a better skater."
The 2018 Winter Olympics represent an opportunity for Cournoyer to take the baton from Charles Hamelin and become the face of Canadian speed skating. In all likelihood, Hamelin, the four-time Olympic medallist from Levis, Que., will hang them up after the conclusion of the PyeongChang Games.
It's quite familiar: a Cournoyer skating his way to Canadian glory.
"From what I've heard, [Yvan is] actually the cousin of my grandfather," Cournoyer says.
If the first two World Cup races are any indication, the Roadrunner is about to make a comeback.