How Marianne St-Gelais got her groove back
Advice from dad, sit-down with coach help Canadian skater get back on track
By Callum Ng, CBC Sports
Marianne St-Gelais admits she has a big personality.
She's one of those people who talks to everybody and is constantly smiling.
"I think it comes from my mom," says the Canadian short track speed skating star, who describes her mother, Francine, as easy-going and positive.
"We're all like that," St-Gelais says of the women in her family, including older sister Marjorie and younger sister Catherine.
The quickest way to get a sense of what Marianne St-Gelais is like is by watching her cheer for her then boyfriend (now fiancé) Charles Hamelin when he skated to 500-metre gold at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
The moment peaks with The Kiss — one of the enduring images of Canada's home Games.
St-Gelais also performed well at her first Olympics, winning a silver medal on her 20th birthday (in the 500) and adding another silver a week later in the 3,000 relay.
Four years later, the Sochi Olympics began a similar way. St-Gelais snuck through a railing into the stands to watch Charles win another gold, this time in the 1,500.
Same elation, more kissing, but the rest was disastrous.
St-Gelais missed the final in the 500, placed 22nd in the 1,500 and fell in her 1,000 heat (Hamelin suffered the same fate in his 500 event on the same day). She would win silver as part of the Canadian relay team, but the Games were a grave disappointment for her.
Underneath the bubbliness, St-Gelais was not ready to perform in Sochi. By the time the Olympics arrived, she and her coach, Frédéric Blackburn, hadn't been getting along for almost two seasons.
Blackburn took over the women's team in 2012 from Sebastien Cros, who had taken a job with Russia's national team. It was jarring for St-Gelais, who had so much success with her old coach. She didn't think Blackburn could help her. He had a different coaching style and their communication suffered.
"The year before Sochi we were trying but it was really hard," says St-Gelais. "Then going through Sochi with the excitement, with the stress that the Games bring, instead of opening [up] to him I just closed myself [off] and I didn't want to work with him."
Looking back, St-Gelais says "it was all my fault" but Blackburn admits a lack of communication on his side.
"I didn't know how to deal with this kind of athlete at that time," he says.
In Sochi, St-Gelais felt like she was just doing laps, relying on her talent, and it wasn't fun.
"I made a promise to myself after that," she says. "I won't step on the ice with that kind of attitude."
Dad knows best
After the 2014 Olympics, St-Gelais thought about never stepping on the ice again.
When training resumed in the late spring, she wasn't up for it, so she spent three weeks in Saint-Félicien with her sisters, her mom and her dad, Gaétan.
"I needed help to just figure everything out," says St-Gelais.
The most resonating piece of advice came from Gaétan, who along with her brother Bastien makes up the more reserved side in the St-Gelais family.
He suggested that Blackburn was similar to a boss. Don't give up because you don't get along with someone, was the message. You won't get far in life.
The advice (sounds like the kind of thing a dad would say) cut through to St-Gelais.
"My dad was always right," she says. "He's not talking all the time, he's not like me, but when he talks it means something."
Meanwhile, Blackburn was thinking deeply about what he could have done better for his star skater.
When St-Gelais returned to Montreal they sat down to talk it out. The first question she asked was whether he thought she was done.
Blackburn answered immediately, telling St-Gelais that he believed she'd only reached about 75 per cent of her potential. "You still have a lot of things to learn and I believe in you," he added.
"I was like, fine, we finally agree on something. Perfect," St-Gelais recalls with a laugh.
Nearly two years into their working relationship, the skater and the coach finally resolved to move in the same direction. And it worked.
In the dreadful 2013-14 Olympic season, St-Gelais won just a single individual World Cup medal. The season following her emotional talk with Blackburn, she won eight. The next season, 11.
During "the meeting," Blackburn even joked that he thought St-Gelais could become the world champion in the 1,500, her weakest distance. She did just that in 2016, and went on to have her best-ever worlds in 2017, winning a silver at each distance (500, 1,000, 1,500).
St-Gelais's confidence in her coach is what Fabien Abejean, the sports psychologist for the national short track team, calls a "prime need" for an athlete. He says it's particularly important for her to "feel part of the relationship or the process."
"I need that relationship," St-Gelais agrees.
It seems to be helping again this season. St-Gelais has won five World Cup medals, including gold in a 500-metre race.
"I think now I'm just stronger because of what happened before and in Sochi," she says.
And Blackburn has another prediction: "I still believe she can be the best skater in the world during the Olympic Games."
If that's true, St-Gelais has a shot to become the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic short track gold medal since Annie Perreault in 1998.
That would be a big performance — to go with that big personality.