Canadian short track speed skating team set up for success in post-Hamelin era
Both men's, women's teams possess unique combination of youth, experience
When Jordan Pierre-Gilles stepped up to the starting line for Canada in the men's 5,000-metre relay at the Beijing Olympics in February, the moment — even beyond skating for his first Olympic medal at his first Olympic Games — was not lost on him.
The last short track speed skating event of the Olympics in February was also the final Olympic competition for Canadian legend Charles Hamelin, who was gunning for a fourth career gold medal.
"We were confident, and I think we were actually really hungry because most of us to that point had no medals in the Games," Pierre-Gilles told CBC Sports recently. "It was more confidence than pressure."
Dubois was the one exception, finishing with a bronze in the men's 1,500m and a silver in the men's 500m earlier in the competition. On the women's side, Kim Boutin, 27, brought in a bronze medal of her own in the 500m.
Canada's short track season gets underway on Friday with the Canadian Short Track Championships in Quebec City, before the first international competition of the year on Oct. 28-30 in Montreal with the first of six World Cup events. That event will be will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca, CBC Gem and the free CBC Sports app.
Hamelin had precious few chances left in his illustrious 20-year career on the national circuit.
In his fifth Olympic Games, Hamelin was at risk of coming up empty-handed for his first time. He won silver in Torino 2006, two golds in Vancouver 2010, gold in Sochi 2014, and a bronze in the men's 5,000m in PyeongChang 2018.
The third-place finish in 2018 was one that brought mixed emotions from Hamelin and Dion.
"I think in 2018 we were a bit disappointed, but I feel like we were just unfortunate," Dion said. "Sam [Girard] got hit in the last two laps and I think it's because of that that we lost the gold.
"But all the guys were happy about the performance on the ice, we were just a bit sad about the result. We knew we worked well as a team."
A proper send-off
There would be no miscues from the Canadian team in 2022.
After holding third place for the first half of the race, Pierre-Gilles made the first move, taking the inside track to pass the Russian Olympic Committee team, immediately following an Hamelin push just before the four-minute mark of the race.
WATCH | Hamelin's final golden moment:
Shortly after, Dubois and Dion teamed up to take advantage of a sloppy exchange by the South Korean team, jumping into first place. It wasn't until 12 laps to go that the methodical pace quickened, with Dion fending off a pass attempt and promptly kicking it into high gear to turn the more methodical pace into a sprint to the finish.
"It's a feeling and you have to have the team spirit and communication to understand what the other guys of the team are doing versus what you're doing," said Dion on quickening the pace. "You don't talk on the ice, but you have to watch every skater and see what they're trying to do.
"With three exchanges to go, we still wanted to be slow, because we knew that the Koreans and other teams would fight at the end. So we were trying to be almost as slow as possible. But to stay in front with two exchanges to go, we just went all out and all the other guys followed when I picked up the pace."
With that teamwork at the forefront, Hamelin was golden once again, alongside a group of young skaters that look to uphold that standard going forward.
Passing the torch
With Hamelin retiring, the title of 'elder statesman' for the Canadian short track team passes to Dion, now 28 and coming off the strongest season of his career. He's ranked second in the world behind Chinese skater Ren Ziwei, who won the gold medal in the men's 1,000m in Beijing.
The Montreal native delivered for Canada all season, earning top honours on the World Cup circuit in the men's 1,000m with two silvers and two bronze in five races.
WATCH | Dion completes marvelous season:
Along with skaters such as Dubois, Laoun and Pierre-Gilles — who set personal best times in the 500 and 1,000m disciplines in Beijing, as well as racking up four medals in the 5,000m in the 2021-22 season — it's a core group of men's skaters that figure to take on even more of a role with the young team.
"In the group, I have a different position for sure," said Pierre-Gilles of his role as the veteran leader. "I have more experience. I've lived through some things, and I've won Olympic gold.
"But for me — and for my goals and my aspirations — nothing has changed. It's more for the other younger skaters that weren't there when [Hamelin] was there last year, my status and image is different for them. But for me, it doesn't change much."
WATCH | Pierre-Gilles relives gold:
Twenty-six-year-old Alphonse Ouimette rounds out the men's team alongside a trio of 21-year-olds in Nicolas Perreault, Jérome Courtemanche and William Dandjinou.
A natural successor to Hamelin on the men's relay teams would be Sherbrooke, Que.'s Dandjinou, who was named as an alternate for Canada in Beijing.
Future starts now for women's skaters
Canada's women's team, meanwhile, has its own medal threats, led by 22-year-old Courtney Sarault.
Since dominating the juniors circuit, Sarault has won five individual distance medals at the world championships and 12 on the World Cup circuit, though she's not satisfied with that success.
"To be more consistent would probably be my goal for this season," Sarault said.
Sarault was able to compete in only one international event in 2021 because of COVID restrictions, but she made the most of it. She finished second twice (1,500m, 3,000m) and third once (1,000m) for second overall at the competition between top-ranked skater Suzanne Schulting of the Netherlands, and legendary Italian skater Arianna Fontana, who has 11 Olympic medals to her name, most recently a gold in the 500m and silver in the 1,500m in Beijing.
WATCH | Sarault adds 3rd medal at world championships:
Sarault has also been a major factor in both the women's and mixed gender relays, earning an additional 12 medals across the world championship and World Cup circuits the past five years. Two of those were silver medals that came skating alongside Hamelin in the mixed 2,000m relay.
"When I got into a mixed relay and was skating with Sam [Girard] and Charles [Hamelin], I was like 'okay, that's pretty cool'," said Sarault, who left her hometown of Moncton, N.B. to join the Canadian national team in Montreal in 2018. "And also Kim [Boutin]... We had more of a bond, and she's still someone I look up to because she's more experienced with her years in the sport."
And then there is 18-year-old Florence Brunelle, who has three World Cup relay medals to her name and participated in her first Olympic Games in Beijing, helping Canada place fourth in the women's 3,000m relay, and sixth in the mixed 2,000m.
The Trois-Rivières, Que., native also showed promise in individual competition, placing 14th in her debut at the 2021 world championships in the Netherlands, earned through top-10 finishes in both the 500m and 1,500m events.
WATCH | Canadian women's relay team put forth excellent performance in Montreal:
While youth can often be a hindrance to taking on more of a leadership role, experience can go a long way.
"I realized a few years ago that I really had an impact on people," said Sarault, who joined the senior team at the same age as Brunelle. "I realized that a lot of people had trust in me and I had to make sure everyone was okay, considering they viewed me as a leader.
"Speed skating you can kind of get selfish sometimes and focus on yourself, but this year helping other people is helping myself. Making others feel comfortable and happy, it helps you a lot more than you'd think."