Olympic legacy of Charles Hamelin, the 'Locomotive de Sainte-Julie', spans generations
Short track star finishes Olympic career tied for most gold medals won by a Canadian
This story was originally published in February of 2022, following Charles Hamelin's final Olympic race. We are revisiting it this weekend as part of our Sunday Read series.
Charles Hamelin's screams of joy on Wednesday brought back memories of many post-race celebrations Michael Gilday shared with the intense and competitive Canadian short track legend.
Gilday, now retired from speed skating competition, was part of CBC Sports' broadcast coverage of short track at Beijing 2022. That included Hamelin's gold on Wednesday, his fourth Olympic podium in the men's 5,000-metre relay. It was his sixth total medal across five Games, tying him with ex-long tracker Cindy Klassen for the most by a Canadian Winter Olympian.
The relay medal also tied him with women's hockey players Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette and Jayna Hefford for the most gold won by a Canadian at either the Summer or Winter Games with four.
"That is Charles in a nutshell," Gilday said about Hamelin's exclamations during the victory ceremony. "He's extremely passionate and his intensity is unmatched.
"I think that level of intensity is what has made him as great as he is."
The 37-year-old Hamelin, who entered his first competition at age 9, is expected to retire following the upcoming short track world championships in Montreal, near his hometown of Sainte-Julie, Que.
"I think he's still at the top of his game and can draw on a wealth of experience others don't have," Gilday said, "but it's nice to go out on top [with Olympic gold]. It's a fairy-tale ending to a storied short track career."
WATCH | Hamelin makes history in final Olympic short track race:
Gilday, who finished sixth with Hamelin in the men's relay at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has admired his former teammate's ability to perform at an elite level every weekend for over 15 years.
"To me, that is truly the mark of excellence," he said. "Everyone's going to know about the Olympic medals, but he never had a weekend off. If we [his teammates] had a bad weekend, he was always there to bring a [positive] result. When I look back on his career, that's what I'll remember most, the consistency."
Hamelin played baseball as a youngster and was introduced to speed skating by his younger brother François, a two-time Olympian with whom he won 2010 relay gold in Vancouver. A third brother, Mathieu, also skated, while their father Yves helped coach at the national level and was high-performance director for Speed Skating Canada between 2006 and 2014.
"Charles is part of a wider family that is short track speed skating in Canada," said CBC Sports' host Scott Russell, host of Olympic Winter Games Primetime during Beijing 2022. "He has staying power and has become an iconic figure in his sport. A fierce competitor devoted to his family and completely aware of the importance of his team."
Yves was glued to his TV in Quebec for Charles' final Olympic race from Beijing along with his son's fiancée, sports journalist Geneviève Lefebvre-Tardif, with whom Charles shares a daughter.
"It's a moment in history and we were feeling the emotion between [Charles and his teammates]. So much work to get there," Yves told CBC, "but now they have the sense of achieving [success].
"Seeing Charles having stayed healthy and having fun and putting the best of himself in any given race for [his] whole career, this speak[s] a lot to me. He enjoyed it for his current teammates and previous teammates. I know this will follow him for his entire life."
WATCH | 'A perfect race,' says Hamelin's fiancée Geneviève Lefebvre-Tardif:
Charles Hamelin, who also helped Canada to Olympic relay silver in 2006, gold in 2010 and bronze in 2018, has also earned 142 World Cup medals and more than 30 world championships, including 14 gold.
Here's a closer look at his Olympic short track success:
Torino 2006: 1st Olympic medal
Hamelin fell short of a gold medal by 3-10ths of a second, teaming with Éric Bédard, François-Louis Tremblay and Mathieu Turcotte to take silver in the 5,000 relay at Palavela arena in Turin, Italy.
A 21-year-old Hamelin also placed fourth in the 1,500 before establishing himself on the international scene, twice winning world championship gold in the 500.
Gilday: "If you look at the sport when he started on the World Cup scene in 2004 to now, you wonder how someone could have excelled then and still [competed] at a high level now. The lap times we're seeing now are probably a good half-second faster and the depth of the field is not comparable.
"There's no doubt Charles has physical gifts. He's incredibly strong, physically, and that has helped him a lot along the way, but [his recent results] tell you everything you need to know about how well Charles has been able to adapt."
Russell: "He is a driven athlete and completely aware of his place in the long tradition of short track speed skating in Canada. In many ways, he's the connection between the glory days of Nathalie Lambert, Sylvie Daigle, and Marc Gagnon and the current generation."
WATCH | Canadian teammates pay tribute to 'iconic' Hamelin:
Vancouver 2010: Double gold on home ice
It was a slow start to Hamelin's second Winter Games, even though he arrived in B.C. in peak form. He finished fourth in the 1,500 and then seventh in the 1,000.
Hamelin rebounded in the 500, clocking an Olympic-record 40.770 seconds in the men's quarter-finals on the way to a gold medal, while fellow Canadian Francois-Louis Tremblay earned bronze. Hamelin's celebratory kiss on the side padding after this race with then-girlfriend and fellow short track skater Marianne St-Gelais is a moment many Olympic fans remember as an iconic moment of those Games, right up there with Sidney Crosby's Golden Goal.
Minutes later, Hamelin and Tremblay returned to the ice at Pacific Coliseum for the relay, with Tremblay anchoring Canada to victory over South Korea as the top four teams were separated by only 4-10ths of a second.
Sochi 2014: Leader of the pack
Hamelin arrived in Sochi, Russia as the clear favourite in the men's 1,500, having earned 11 world medals in the four-year lead-up to the Games, including relay gold from 2011 to 2013.
He took the lead with six of 13 ½ laps remaining at Iceberg Skating Palace and held off Han Tianyu of China and Russia's Victor An, stopping the clock in 2:14.99.
But Hamelin's Olympics ended in disaster. After winning gold, he fell in his 1,000 quarter-final. Days later, Hamelin slipped on a corner during his 500 qualifying heat, placing 32nd and ending hopes of defending his title.
Gilday: "He was certainly the leader of the men's team, and I would say he was in 2010. Francois-Louis Tremblay and Tania Vicent were probably the veteran leaders, but Charles had been around for a number of years and was experienced, relative to the other members of the team.
"What's remarkable is Charles has probably inspired two generations [of skaters] and maybe three, and that's impressive."
Russell: "It was so fitting that his last race [on Wednesday] was a victory for the team, of which he is the undisputed leader."
PyeongChang 2018: Medal No. 5
Hamelin was shut out of the medals in the individual events, placing ninth in the 1,000 and 13th in the 1,500 before teaming with Samuel Girard, Charles Cournoyer and Pascal Dion to grab relay bronze.
It was his fifth career Olympic medal, matching Gagnon and Tremblay for most by a Canadian short tracker. Hamelin then made the surprise announcement he would put off retirement for at least one more year.
Gilday: "In 2018, it was very clear he had more to give. He had kind of a bumpy ride [in the individual events] and [three weeks later] won the overall world championship, something that had eluded him for some time and was an important milestone."
Russell: "His record of success is unparalleled and at times he seemed obsessed with becoming the overall world champion [in 2018]. He then seemed to turn his focus to be a part of the team and leading it into the future. He commands respect and has a great reverence for the forerunners, in particular Marc Gagnon, who he grew up idolizing.
Beijing 2022: Flag-bearer, golden goodbye
After leaving Pyeongchang with a "sad feeling" despite earning relay bronze, Hamelin was determined to return home from Beijing with "some memories and some [medals]."
But first, he checked another item off his Olympic to-do list, leading the entire Team Canada procession — his "family" — into Beijing's Bird's Nest during the opening ceremony with co-flag-bearer Marie-Philip Poulin.
While he was kept off the podium in the individual 1,500, Hamelin's focus was helping Canada capture relay gold, which made for a golden goodbye at the Beijing Games.
"Finishing with a [gold medal] it can't be better than that. Being on top of the podium, it's like the cherry on top to be with these guys. They're like my brothers," Hamelin told CBC Sports, referring to Steven Dubois, Jordan Pierre-Gilles, Maxime Laoun and Dion. "It's the best win ever."
Russell: "Charles Hamelin is the greatest short track speed skater in the history of the sport. He is a national treasure.
"La Locomotive Sainte-Julie."