HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
Sport: Speed Skating (long-track)
Event: Women’s 1,500 m, 3,000 m, 5,000 m, mass start & team pursuit
Local Club: Gloucester Concordes
By Martin Cleary
HIGH ACHIEVERS BOUND FOR BEIJING SERIES (Part 3 of 5): If you were to review Ivanie Blondin’s results from her stellar and lengthy international long-track speed skating career, your eyes would widen and your head would slowly start shaking from side to side out of respect for her talent and consistency.
Look at all those medal performances during her 12 years on the World Cup circuit and representing Canada at various world championships. Let’s bring all the important numbers into clear focus.
Blondin, 31, started racing on the World Cup circuit and at the world championships (single-distance and all-around) during the 2010-11 season, after a six-year stint as a short-track speed skater. And she’s going stronger than ever in 2021-22. In that dozen-year span covering those two major competitions, Blondin has followed her skating philosophy of “skate fast, turn left” about 150 times.
When it comes to World Cup races, she has become a notable podium fixture with 21 gold, 24 silver and 22 bronze medals, according to the International Skating Union website. The majority of the gold medals have come in two races – the mass start (nine) and team pursuit (eight). Her other four wins were in individual races – twice over 3,000 metres and once each in the 1,500 and 3,000 metres.
At the world single-distance championships, the same theme runs true. She has won the mass start three times and added two silver medals. In the team pursuit, she has helped Canada win one silver and one bronze medals. Her lone individual-race medal has been a bronze over 5,000 metres. At the world all-around championships, where skaters compete over four different distances, Blondin has won two silver and one bronze medals.
All those trips to the medal podium also have allowed her to become Speed Skating Canada’s female long-track speed skater of the year six times as well as a two-time winner of the Kristina Groves Female Athlete-of-the-Year Trophy at the Ottawa Sports Awards Dinner.
But as you run your finger down that list of Blondin’s Grade A accomplishments, there was one glaring omission. What about the Winter Olympic Games?
The Canadian Olympic Committee sent Blondin to the 2014 Games in Sochi and the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, and its projections for her were high given her lead-up international results.
But when it came time to race, her powerful legs and endurance couldn’t take her to the medal ceremony. Close, but not close enough. In her seven Olympic races, she has had one fourth place, two fifths, one sixth, a 14th, a 19th and a 24th.
Remembering that the women’s mass start semi-final-round crash at the 2018 Olympics denied her a berth in the 16-skater final, Blondin is planning to right that wrong at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
“I am heading there with a goal of redemption, after my last Olympic Games, and a drive to make myself and all Canadians proud,” she said in the Speed Skating Canada press release that announced Canada’s 16-skater long-track team.
Besides the mass start disappointment, Blondin was fourth in the team pursuit with Isabelle Weidemann of Ottawa and Josie Morrison, fifth in the 5,000 metres and sixth in the 3,000 metres at PyeongChang 2018. In the team pursuit, Canada raced for the bronze medal head-to-head against the United States, but lost the battle by 0.45 seconds.
In the 2014 Sochi team pursuit, Blondin, Kali Christ and Brittany Schussler were eliminated from medal contention in the quarter-final round, losing to Russia by 0.53 seconds. Instead, Canada raced in the C final and defeated the United States by 1.73 seconds for fifth place.
“At the last Olympics, I was in the same position as I am now. I was a multiple World Cup and world championship medal winner,” a reflective Blondin said in a recent phone interview. “I truly believed I could come home with one medal.
“But I felt I had failed. I came home empty-handed.”
The months that followed for Blondin were challenging and affected her mental health. But she found a perfect solution for dealing with her off-ice struggle. Fostering dogs was her pathway to building her confidence and maintaining her role as a high-performance athlete.
“After the 2018 Games, I found myself in a state of depression. I began my recovery by filling the house with foster dogs,” Blondin told the CBC as part of its Toyota Breakthrough video series. “Helping these dogs through some painful moments and bringing them into our home helped me overcome adversity. I was helping them, but in the end they ended up helping me.
“I just kept filling our house with animals – that’s how I healed. Taking care of those animals brought me back to where I needed to be. And when you go from such a high to such a low, if you do bounce back properly, sometimes these things make you stronger. I think one of the biggest lessons is to just focus on myself and not on others.”
Blondin and her husband Konrad Nagy, who is in the mix to skate for the Hungarian long-track speed skating team at the Olympics, have reduced the animal population at their house to one St. Bernard dog and one parrot.
Blondin will have a different mindset as she enters her third Games. She will carry her largest-ever load of Olympic races and will have the busiest schedule of any Canadian long-track speed skater. She’s planning to compete in five races – the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 metres, the team pursuit and the mass start – because they’re spread throughout the Games, which are scheduled for Feb. 4-20.
“I’m excited to perform. Whatever happens, I will accept,” she said confidently and boldly.
The evidence is certainly in Blondin’s favour to earn her first Olympic medal at the Beijing Games and maybe even two.
In the team pursuit, Blondin, Weidemann and Valérie Maltais have been untouchable in the six-lap race. They combined to win all three World Cup races and were named the overall women’s team pursuit champions.
“We have come an incredible long way in the last two years,” Blondin said. “We are all very different, but we make it work.”
Maltais will lead Blondin and Weidemann through the first 1.5 laps, allowing Blondin to save her energy for later in the race. Weidemann is the tallest of the trio at 6-2 and can hold the pace as an endurance racer. Blondin and Maltais will draft in behind Weidemann before they accelerate into the final two laps.
As for the women’s mass start, Blondin is the World Cup leader with only a season-ending race remaining. She won the mass start in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was second in the other two races. Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida is in second place in the World Cup standings with the Calgary mass start win to her credit. Irene Schouten of The Netherlands is sixth, but she won the race in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland, and only competed in two races.
The mass start suits Blondin’s personality and is partially fuelled by her original speed-skating roots, when she was a short-track skater from ages 14-20.
“It’s a race a lot of women aren’t comfortable with,” said the Gloucester Concordes product. “It’s more hands-on. It’s the environment I strive for. The more competitive and physical, the better I do. The mental aspects, the head-to-head get me fired up.”
Blondin enters her third Olympics in a positive frame of mind, ready to focus on herself and release her power on the ice, after more than a month without official competition.
“For me, the Olympics is on the world stage. We’re not used to big crowds. There’s so much pressure on your shoulders. I’ve felt the pressure and crumbled under that. Back then, I didn’t have the tools to deal with it,” Blondin said.
She feels better equipped today with an open mind that doesn’t expect a medal and a willingness to accept the end results. And her spirits will be lifted even higher, if Nagy is named to the Hungarian Olympic team.
Too bad she couldn’t get her St. Bernard and parrot accredited for the Games and have her parents in the stands. That would put her in the ultimate comfort zone for race days.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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