By Martin Cleary
OTTAWA’S OLYMPIC INSIDERS (Part 5 of 5): By the time you wake up Saturday morning, the celebrations may already be in full force.
Canada may have won its first medal, maybe even a second, before sunrise. And you can thank one or possibly two Ottawa long-track speed skaters for giving Canada a high ranking on the results table early on the first day of medal competitions at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
The women’s 3,000-metre speed skating race is Canada’s first major opportunity to strike gold, silver and/or bronze because of the powerful and fluid striding of Isabelle Weidemann and Ivanie Blondin.
Competing in her second Olympics and coming close to winning her first medal in PyeongChang in 2018, Weidemann is ranked No. 1 in the endurance races entering the 2022 Games. Her ranking is based on three 3,000-metre and one 5,000-metre races on the World Cup circuit. Blondin, who is seeking to seize her first-ever Olympic medal in three Winter Games, is ranked seventh.
If Weidemann and/or Blondin emerge with a first-ever medal, it also will be a Canadian Olympic Committee milestone. Canada has won 199 career medals (73 gold, 64 silver and 62 bronze) at the Winter Games, so one medal will take it to 200 and two will break that double-century threshold.
Weidemann’s No. 1 ranking is based on four World Cup races, while Irene Schouten of The Netherlands may actually be the race favourite, having competed in only three races: the first two 3,000-metre races and the lone 5,000 metres. She won all three of her races and is ranked third on points on the World Cup circuit.
Weidemann will race the clock against Norway’s Ragne Wiklund in the ninth of 10 pairings. In their four endurance meetings on the World Cup this season, Weidemann has defeated Wiklund three times. Blondin will face endurance legend Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic in the eighth pairing. Sablikova has won six Olympic medals, including three gold, and is a 21-time world champion and 30-time worlds medallist.
As Weidemann and Blondin continue their race recovery phase, Schouten will go head-to-head against Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida in the 10th and final pairing. Weidemann also has outskated Lollobrigida in three of four races in 2021-22.
If Weidemann reaches the podium in the 3,000 metres, this could be the start of an historic run that could take her to three medals. She also will race the 5,000 metres on Thursday and the team pursuit on Feb. 12 (quarterfinals) and Feb. 15 (finals). In the only 5,000-metre race on the World Cup circuit this season, Weidemann placed second. Weidemann, Blondin and Valérie Maltais are seen as the gold-medal favourites in the team pursuit, after winning all three 2021-22 World Cup six-lap races.
A three-medal performance in a single Games by Weidemann would be a first for an Ottawa Olympian and put her in elite company with speed skating’s Cindy Klassen, 2006, five medals; Gaetan Boucher, speed skating, 1984, three; Marc Gagnon, short-track speed skating, 2002, three; and Kim Boutin, short-track speed skating, 2018, three.
Blondin, who has won 11 world championship and 67 World Cup medals, will carry the heaviest load of any Canadian long-track speed skater by planning to compete in five races: 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 metres, team pursuit and mass start. The last two races may be her best bet to step onto the medal podium as she is ranked No. 1 on the World Cup circuit in both events.
Here is a look at the other Ottawa and area athletes at the Beijing Olympics:
ALPINE SKIING: Valérie Grenier of St-Isidore, ON., and Mont-Tremblant Ski Club should be fresh and energetic entering the women’s giant slalom on Monday. She has only had five international races in the 2021-22 season and has had five impressive results. On the World Cup, she has had a fourth-place finish, a seventh and an 11th. She also won two GS races at the Italian national championships. Grenier missed her first World Cup medal in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, by 0.07 seconds.
BOBSLEIGH: Cody Sorensen and Mike Evelyn, both of Ottawa, form half of driver Chris Spring’s four-man crew. After a slow start to the season, they finished the World Cup season with two top-10 showings, an eighth and a ninth. This is Sorensen’s second Winter Games, after his sled crashed in the second run at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and he left the competition with a concussion. This will be Evelyn’s Olympic debut, after playing five years of hockey at Dalhousie University. Evelyn and Spring could surprise in the two-man race, having posted two World Cup fourths this season. Former Carleton Ravens football player Jay Dearborn of Yarker, ON (north of Kingston) is set to push for Taylor Austin’s Canada-3 four-man bobsled. The two-man competition is Feb. 14-15 and the four-man competition goes Feb. 19-20.
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: Antoine Cyr of Gatineau, Katherine Stewart-Jones of Chelsea and Laura Leclair of Chelsea are first-time Olympians. Stewart-Jones will be first off Saturday in the women’s 15-kilometre skiathlon (7.5-kilometre classic followed by 7.5-kilometre free technique). Cyr, who expects to enter five of the men’s six races, will tackle the men’s 30-kilometre skiathlon (15-kilometre classic and 15-kilometre free technique) on Sunday.
CURLING: Ottawa-raised John Morris and Rachel Homan, who are now based in Canmore, AB., and Beaumont, AB., respectively, are off to an encouraging start in the mixed doubles with a 3-1 record and five round-robin games remaining. Morris, the 2018 Olympic mixed doubles champion with Kaitlyn Lawes, and Homan, a three-time Canadian women’s team champion and the 2017 world champion in Beijing, need to finish in the top four to qualify for Monday’s semifinals. The medal matches are Tuesday. Ottawa-born Dawn (Askin) McEwen is the lead for Canada’s Jennifer Jones’ rink in the women’s team competition, while fellow lead Lisa Weagle of Ottawa will also likely see action as the fifth player in Jones’ five-member team. McEwen was part of Jones’s Olympic gold medal team in 2014 and is a two-time world champion. A world champ in 2017, Weagle was the lead on Homan’s team from 2010-20 and competed at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The women’s team competition runs Feb. 10-20.
HOCKEY: Jamie Lee Rattray of Kanata is skating in her first Olympics and recorded an assist in Canada’s opening 12-1 win over Switzerland. Canada completes its round-robin schedule meeting Finland on Saturday, Russian Olympic Committee on Monday and the United States on Tuesday. The playoffs and medal matches run Feb. 11-17. Canada’s men’s hockey team includes Ottawa’s Eric O’Dell, Mason McTavish of Carp, ON., and former Carleton Place Canadians’ goalie Devon Levi. Returning Olympian O’Dell, a former player in the Ottawa Senators’ organization, has spent the past six seasons in the KHL in Russia. McTavish, who showed a lot of flash in the 2022 COVID-shortened world junior championships, will play for his sixth team this season at his first Olympics. Levi is the starting goalie at Northeastern University, after playing for Canada at the 2021 world junior championships. The preliminary-round schedule has Canada playing Germany on Thursday, the United States on Feb. 12, and China on Feb. 13. The playoffs go from Feb. 15-20.
SKELETON: After missing the 2020-21 World Cup skeleton season because of a neck injury, Mirela Rahneva of Ottawa placed eighth on the international circuit this season, thanks in particular to her final two results, a fifth and a third. She finished the World Cup season with two bronze medals and three top-10 results. In previous seasons, the exceptionally fast starter was third overall on the World Cup in 2018-19 and 2016-17 as well as fifth in 2019-20. She has 21 top-five finishes to her credit as well as three gold, three silver and five bronze World Cup medals.
SKI CROSS: Brother and sister Jared and Hannah Schmidt of Dunrobin, ON., weren’t expecting to make Canada’s Olympic team until the 2026 Winter Games. But their sound alpine skiing backgrounds and desire to become strong ski-cross racers earned them start numbers for the Beijing Olympics. They have experienced 20 World Cup races each over three seasons. Jared has collected two career bronze medals, while Hannah has had six top-10 World Cup results and reached her first A final in December and finished fourth.
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 High Achievers “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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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