Sports

Catriona Le May Doan: Canada's speed queen

It's lonely at the top, and no one knows this better than super-sprinter Catriona Le May Doan.

"Being number one is a hard place to be," she recently told CBC, "because everybody wants to take your position."

The 31-year-old Saskatoon native has been Canada's reigning queen of long-track speed skating since capturing gold in the 500-metre race and bronze in the 1,000m at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and she shows no signs of giving up her throne without a fight.

"My goals for Salt Lake City," she says, "are to defend my title in the 500m. I would also love to double my podium finish with a medal in the 1,000m."

If the season so far is any indication, those goals seem pretty reasonable. Le May Doan is the world-record holder in the 500m, and this season she first matched that record and then exploded it over two consecutive days of World Cup racing at her home track, the Olympic Oval in Calgary. She is undefeated in the 500m during the 2001-2002 World Cup season, and was recently crowned world sprint champion in Hamar, Norway, after sweeping both 500m races and taking a silver medal in the 1,000m.

"No one's really a threat to Catriona," chuckles CBC speed-skating analyst Neal Marshall. "She'd pretty much have to put her skates on the wrong feet!"

Blessed with power

Le May Doan herself is somewhat more philosophical about her exalted position. "I think I'm naturally athletic and naturally able to be able to do this," she told CBC, "but it's also something that I've worked at.... I definitely have power. That's what helps me in my skating. I look at it as something that I've been blessed with. The skates and the blade can help you be fast, and then it's just technique and how your body is made, and (how) those are all clicking together."

Right now, she says, "I'm at the age where maybe I'm at my peak, and so I think it's all just come together at the right time."

Le May Doan grew up in Saskatoon as the youngest of three girls, and spent her summers in Scotland with her relatives and family. A natural athlete, she was involved in a variety of sports, including soccer, track and field and ringette, from an early age. She began speed skating at the age of 10, lured by the excitement of the sport, and by the fact it was so "different," she says.

In 1983, at the age of only 13, she competed in the Canada Winter Games, capturing a bronze medal in short-track speed skating. In 1987 she returned to win a silver and a bronze. In 1993, she competed as a hurdler at the Canada Summer Games, becoming one of only a handful of Canadian athletes to have participated at both a winter and a summer Canada Games.

A speed bump along the way

But speed skating remained her focus, and she made her Olympic debut at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, finishing 14th in the 500m and 31st in the 1000m. Not bad for a start, but in 1994, she finished 33rd in the 500m at the Lillehammer Games after falling.

Shaken and discouraged, it was months before Le May Doan could bring herself to step into a pair of skates again.

"I feel like I failed," she says, and she admits that handling that disappointment was one of the biggest challenges of her career. "I'm a perfectionist. I can be pretty hard on myself when I don't do things to the [best of my] ability."

But her natural stubbornness, along with some TLC from her friends, family and teammates, and soon-to-be husband Bart Doan, helped set her back on her feet.

"My husband and family and the fact that they are behind me 100 per cent, knowing that they support me regardless of my results, has the biggest impact for me," she says. "I couldn't have the results that I have without the support of Bart, my family, friends (and my) teammates."

Also instrumental to maintaining a winning frame of mind was becoming a Christian, which she credits with helping her regain and maintain an even keel.

"My faith gives me a sense of peace in everything in my life," she says. "I find in the last couple of years, that my faith has really grown, and that I have found more fulfillment in all areas of my life."

Due to her training and racing schedule, which usually requires her to be on the road on weekends, Le May Doan is not often able to attend church, but "for the last couple of years, there has often been a pre-competition chapel set up at different World Cups and world championships at the various places we are in the world."

An athlete's schedule can also place a strain on any relationship, but this season, Bart, whom Le May Doan fondly describes as "a man of many talents," has been on the road with her for much of the time.

"He has been traveling a lot with me lately," she says happily. "We figured because this life of travelling won't last forever, we should take advantage of it while we can. He is a huge support to me, and I really enjoy having him on the road so we can share the experiences together."

A fixture at all her races, Bart, wearing his signature black cowboy hat, can usually be seen shouting encouragement from the sidelines.

"Bart is always standing at the same spot, just by the second corner," she says. "He's always yelling something specific to me. So that always helps me. If there's something I'm weak at, it's that second corner. There's still that little bit of fear."

Life after the Olympics Somewhat reluctantly, Le May Doan says that Salt Lake City will probably be her last Winter Games.

"I will for sure skate after the Olympics [though]," she adds. "Calgary has the World Championships in 2003 and just for myself, I don't want the Olympics to be my last year. I don't want to be going into the race thinking, 'This is the last time I'm going to skate.'"

First of all, she would like to spend some more time improving her golf game, perhaps buy a dog, and resume riding her beloved horse ThreePar. "I didn't ride last year, as I felt it was a bit of a risk," she says. "Next year I hope to ride more. I'm not a very good rider, so I need to do it more."

While many elite athletes use their competitive amateur careers as a springboard to urther opportunities within sport or elsewhere in the public eye, Le May Doan's dreams are relatively homey. She and Bart also plan to start a family, and move out to the countryside. "We would love to leave the city and have a few cows and some horses, and just really leave the busy-ness (behind). Our ultimate dream would be to have a bed and breakfast."

For now, however, her focus is on representing Canada at Salt Lake City, first by carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremonies and later, by leaving everything she has on the Utah Olympic Oval -- except an Olympic medal or two.

In the end, she concludes, "I want to be able to step away and say, 'That was the best I could do with everything I had.'"

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