Sacrifice, resilience and gratitude at heart of Canadian speed skating team pursuit gold

Canadian speed skaters Isabelle Weidemann, Ivanie Blondin and Val Maltais kept putting their hands over their mouths, seemingly in disbelief at their Olympic record skate to claim Canada's first gold medal in the team pursuit on Tuesday.

Weidemann became 2nd Canadian to collect gold, silver, bronze at 1 Winter Games

Team Canada long track speed skaters (left to right) Valerie Maltais, Isabelle Weidemann and Ivanie Blondin celebrate their gold medal and Olympic record in the women’s team pursuit on Tuesday. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/The Canadian Press)

It was such a beautiful moment of ecstasy, joy and relief inside the Ice Ribbon on Tuesday afternoon in Beijing.

Canadian speed skaters Isabelle Weidemann, Ivanie Blondin and Val Maltais couldn't hide what the moment meant to them.

All three of the skaters kept putting their hands over their mouths, seemingly in disbelief at their Olympic record skate to claim Canada's first gold medal in the team pursuit.

Maltais grabbed a Canadian flag and started draping it over herself. Blondin, gassed after the race, caught up to her and grabbed her hand.

The two skated around the ice with the flag, finally catching up to Weideman who was hunched over on the side of the ice.

The high-powered Canadian speed skating trio just kept skating around the oval smiling and hugging and celebrating —soaking up a moment years in the making.

WATCH | Canadian women claim 1st ever gold medal in team pursuit in record fashion:

Canadian women claim 1st ever Olympic gold in team pursuit

6 months ago
Duration 7:30
Canadian speed skaters Isabelle Weidemann, Ivanie Blondin and Valérie Maltais win the gold medal in women's team pursuit with an Olympic record time of 2:53.44.

"We were still on a mission. We went into that final wanting to skate our best. This is just incredible," Weidemann said. "It's been such an incredible week here in Beijing."

The story of these three is one of sacrifice, resilience and gratitude.

Four years ago at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Weidemann and Blondin were part of the Canadian team pursuit that just missed the podium.

The sting of finishing fourth fuelled them over this last quadrennial.

For Weidemann, who has become the star of these Games now with a gold, silver and bronze medal, the 2018 Olympics were a turning point in her career.

WATCH | Weidemann's family cheers her on from home:

Isabelle Weidemann’s family cheers her on to 2nd medal of Beijing

6 months ago
Duration 1:13
While they couldn’t be in Beijing, Isabelle Weidemann knows her family is cheering every step of the way from Calgary. The Canadian speed skater added a silver in the 5,000m to her Beijing medal haul on Thursday.

It was the 22-year-old's Olympic debut. And she underperformed.

She finished seventh in the 3,000m and sixth in the 5,000m, to go along with the fourth-place finish in the team pursuit.

"I have some unresolved goals from the last Games. I don't feel I skated to my potential," Weidemann told CBC Sports.

She used the disappointment of that first big athletic stage experience to motivate her throughout the journey to the Beijing Games.

But there were hurdles Weidemann and many more of the speed skating team could have never predicted.

The pandemic had obviously derailed their training plans in unimaginable ways — but perhaps equally as jarring was the shutting down of the oval leading into last season due to maintenance issues.

Team Canada's Alexa Scott, right, reaches out to the women's team pursuit trio of Isabelle Weidemann, centre-right, Ivanie Blondin, centre-left, and Valerie Maltais after they won the gold medal and set an Olympic record in speed skating women's team pursuit at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Ashley Landis/The Associated Press)

It forced the Canadian speed skaters to get creative and get outside.

Weidemann, Blondin and Maltais and many more on the speed skating team trained on the outdoor oval in Red Deer, Alta., as well as Gap Lake, near Calgary, just to get some valuable ice time. It made for stunning scenes but wasn't particularly great for the high-performance training they were used to.

Weidemann, who's from Ottawa, embraced the experience.

"I actually really, really enjoyed skating outside. It was cold sometimes, but I grew up skating outside in Ottawa. It felt like home to me," Weidemann told CBC Sports last season.

"We never race outside anymore. So I can take those aspects and then come inside and in some ways it's making it feel really easy because I've been doing this harder work outside."

But perhaps most importantly, is that the time away from the pristine ice conditions at the Calgary Oval brought a level of perspective Weidemann hadn't experienced in her career.

She calls it an attitude of gratitude — the sport she had sometimes taken for granted seemed exciting, new and fresh again.

WATCH | Canadian women get their golds:

Canadian skaters receive gold medals for women's team pursuit

6 months ago
Duration 2:54
Isabelle Weidemann, Ivanie Blondin and Valerie Maltais stand on top of the podium and sing O Canada at Beijing 2022.

And it showed at the beginning of the season when Weidemann took to the oval ice.

Weidemann broke the national record in the women's 5,000m, posting a time of 6:46.81 — it was more than five tenths of a second faster than her own previous mark.

"Very surprised," she said after that race in October.

"I was a little unsure what the training was going to give me. We hadn't raced in so long. Training has been going well but I've definitely been uncomfortable a lot this year. But this is a great start."

That race was obviously foreshadowing what would come for the 26-year-old in Beijing. Weidemann is Canada's first triple medallist of the Games and is just the second Canadian ever to collect a set of gold, silver and bronze medals at one Winter Games.

Blondin earns 1st Olympic medal

Blondin, in her third Olympic appearance, finally has a medal.

It's been a somewhat turbulent journey getting to the top of the podium with her teammates in the team pursuit.

She's called herself an "emotional wreck, sometimes," unable to deliver the performances she's wanted to at the Olympics.

And these Games, until the golden skate, were unravelling for Blondin. She placed 13th in the 1,500m and 14th in the 3,000m.

WATCH | Canadian women punch their golden ticket:

Weidemann designs ‘golden ticket’ to motivate team pursuit teammates

6 months ago
Duration 1:43
For months before Beijing, Isabelle Weidemann, Valerie Maltais and Ivanie Blondin kept golden tickets in their wallets. Then they cashed them in for the real thing, Olympic gold.

The 31-year-old was seemingly reeling again. But her poise and maturity showed at these Games. Blondin chose to withdraw from the 5,000m to ensure she was well-rested for the team pursuit.

That break from the gruelling competition, both physically and mentally, seemed to refocus Blondin so she could deliver when it mattered most with her teammates.

"I'm extremely happy and grateful to be by their side and have incredible teammates. It's something special to step on the podium with two female athletes. It's a great moment," Blondin said.

Maltais' move to long track pays off

And then there's the final piece of the puzzle. Maltais, who is making her fourth Olympic appearance, traded in the short track skates for the long track skates four years ago.

After the 2018 Olympics, Maltais made the move to Calgary to be with her fiancé Jordan Belchos, also a member of the speed skating team.

The 31-year-old from Saguenay, Que., wasn't entirely sure what the future looked like but knew she still had the passion and desire to compete. So she started long track speed skating.

"It paid off greatly. That medal for me, moving across Canada and leaving my family and friends behind, there were so many sacrifices," she said.

While their journeys to stand together on the podium and put the gold medals on each other's necks were somewhat different, there was a common thread of appreciating the work one another had put in to get into that position to win.

And when it finally came time to deliver, Weidemann, Blondin and Maltais met the moment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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