Ivanie Blondin, Canadian skaters thrilled to be competing, but with lowered expectations after long layoff
Team makes return at 2 World Cup events in Netherlands bubble
Coming off one its most successful seasons in the history of the program, Canadian speed skaters were looking to carry the momentum of their 31 World Cup medals into this year.
Then the pandemic hit, the Calgary Oval broke down in September, and now it's been more than 10 months since speed skaters have laced up for a competitive event.
To say it's been a nightmarish season is an understatement.
"I'm not going to say I didn't panic. I did panic. There were a couple times over the last while I asked what I was doing," Ivanie Blondin told CBC Sports this past week from Heerenveen, Netherlands. "Especially when other skaters were competing. They were posting all these fast times and I hadn't even been on the ice."
The 30-year-old Calgary resident is one of 13 Canadian long track skaters who have entered the Netherlands "bubble" and are gearing up to compete in a pair of unique World Cup events starting this weekend. It will all lead to the world championships Feb. 11 - 14.
These will be the team's first events since the COVID-19 pandemic brought international competition to a halt last March.
WATCH | Canadian skaters excited for start of season:
"In my mind I'm telling myself this is training camp to lay off the pressure," said Blondin, who won the mass start event gold medal at last year's world single distance championships. "I'm trying to be realistic. I don't think there will be many podiums and that's OK."
CBC Sports will have live streaming coverage of all competition days, as well blocks of televised coverage as part of their 'Road to the Olympic Games' program.
It's been quite the adventure for the Canadians just to get to this point. While athletes around the world were still able to find indoor oval ice to train and compete on, Canadian speed skaters had to think outside the box — that included taking their skating outside.
Photos and videos of Canada's long track speed skaters training on icy lakes with picturesque mountains in the background have been making the rounds. Yes, the speed skaters from Canada have been training on lakes to stay in shape and in form. And while it may look pretty, it's not ideal for preparing for international competitions.
WATCH | Canada's top speed skaters dazzle onlookers with practice on wild ice:
"The ice is really different and so bumpy. Of course you're enjoying it because it's picturesque. But for training, it's not a controlled environment. You are far from the limit," said Ted-Jan Bloemen, the 2018 Olympic champion in the 10,000 metres. "We haven't been able to do intensive training."
Bloemen was born and raised in the Netherlands. The bubble the team is in is about 90 minutes from where he grew up. He moved to Canada in 2014 after being snubbed by the Dutch and since then has ascended to speed skating greatness.
There were some really dark times these past 10 months for Bloemen. When he speaks about skating you can hear the joy in his voice, something he lost when he wasn't able to be on the ice. But now he's back doing what he loves and is more motivated than ever.
"I was so happy. It felt so good to glide again. I want to be skating. I love that feeling so much. I would want to make other people feel the way I do when I'm skating," he said.
Sure, the Canadians are happy to be skating again. But they're also realistic about how they'll perform in these World Cup events.
"For me the next few weeks to race is about practice. We haven't had the best lead up," Isabelle Weidemann said. "I'm struggling a little bit feeling race ready."
Weidermann, from Ottawa, will be competing in the 1,500m and 3,000m events. She says she's never trained so much in a season and is excited to see what will come of it.
"I've never biked or ran this much, or spent this much time in the weight room. We've chatted a lot about it. Everyone has the same feelings about not being ready."
Weidermann, Blondin and Bloemen are making very clear that Canadian skating fans should not panic and race to any conclusions about where the team is at a year out from Beijing 2022. Instead, as a team, they've decided this is valuable practice that will lead them into a full season of competition beginning next fall.
"It's not going to be pretty but the important thing is we're on ice now," Blondin said.
And building for Beijing.
Canadians competing in Heerenveen, along with the individual distances they have qualified for:
- Ivanie Blondin (Ottawa, Ont.): 1,000m, 1,500m, 3,000m, mass start
- Kaylin Irvine (Calgary, Alta.): 500m, 1,000m
- Béatrice Lamarche (Quebec City, Que.): 1,000m
- Valérie Maltais (Saguenay, Que.): 1,500m, 3,000m, mass start
- Abigail McCluskey (Penticton, B.C.): 1,500m, 3,000m
- Heather McLean (Winnipeg, Man.): 500m, 1,000m
- Isabelle Weidemann (Ottawa, Ont.): 1,500m, 3,000m
- Jordan Belchos (Toronto, Ont.): 5,000m, mass start
- Ted-Jan Bloemen (Calgary, Alta.): 5,000m
- Alex Boisvert-Lacroix (Sherbrooke, Que.): 500m
- Laurent Dubreuil (Lévis, Que.): 500m, 1,000m
- Connor Howe (Canmore, Alta.): 1,000m, 1,500m
- Gilmore Junio (Calgary, Alta.): 500m