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Ottawa at the Olympics Day 5: Dramatic day (with more to come) for curlers

By Dan Plouffe, Martin Cleary & Ethan Diamandas (This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Olympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.)

Day 5 recap: Dramatic day with more to come for curlers

Whether you were up in the middle of the night or tuning in this morning, Rachel Homan and John Morris jolted you awake like a strong shot of espresso with back-to-back extra-end mixed curling contests in Beijing.

In their first match, the Ottawa pair traded single points with their opponents through 5 ends before the Czech Republic scored a pair in the 6th. Morris spurred a crucial decision to concede a steal of one in the 7th and go into the final end with last-rock advantage, but down by 2.

Needing a pinpoint draw with her final rock, Homan had to hurry her shot since Canada’s time allotted for consultation was about to expire, but she nailed it for 2 points, and then dominated the extra end to steal a 7-5 victory.

“Just an unbelievable game,” Homan said via the Canadian Olympic Committee. “I couldn’t see the clock (before the last shot of the 8th end) and all I could were the second digits. I assumed it said 14. When it hit 2 (Morris) said, ‘Go, go, go!’, so I assumed it was 2, so I let it go as quick as I could. That was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Two-time Olympic-champion Morris, 43, said it was “a gutsy, gutsy effort” to come out on top, and “absolutely the most dramatic ending I’ve been part of.”

Rachel Homan and John Morris celebrate their dramatic win over the Czech Republic on Sunday. Photo: World Curling Federation/Stephen Fisher

The drama was far from finished. Their next contest was against Australia, though there had been some uncertainty earlier about whether that match would be played. Australia’s Tahli Gill had COVID before the Games, had the required negative tests to get to Beijing, but then tested positive before the match at Canada. The Aussies thought their competition was done, but the Olympic medical commission ultimately decided that she was unlikely to be contagious and was allowed to continue at the last moment.

Australia was out of contention for the playoffs, but nonetheless hammered Homan and Morris into a 7-0 hole after 4 ends. The Canadians crafted an exceptional comeback to tie it 8-8, but couldn’t complete the story in the extra end and lost 10-8.

“It was a tough game,” Homan told the CBC. “We came out pretty slow, kind of struggled a little bit, and we guessed as good as we could, and we fought and never gave up. I’m proud of both of us for sticking with the process and trying to battle out that win. At the end of the day it didn’t go our way – just got to take it and learn from it and move on.”

Rachel Homan. Photo: World Curling Federation/Stephen Fisher

Homan and Morris will conclude the round robin portion of the competition tonight at 8:05 p.m. Ottawa time against 8-0 Italy. The game is a must-win for Canada in order to advance to the semi-finals (which will take place tomorrow at 7:05 a.m. EST).

Canada (5-3) is currently tied for 2nd in the standings with Great Britain and Norway, but is on the wrong side of the tiebreaking equation, and a loss to the undefeated Italians would drop them to 5th behind 5-4 Sweden and knock them out of the tournament.

“I know that (the Italians) are playing really well and they are crushing teams here like they’ve been here for 20 years,” Homan said. “So we’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”

Local coach had a hand in triumphant figure skating performance

Homan and Morris were the lone local athletes in action on Day 5, but there was an Ottawa connection to a big moment over on the figure skating ice.

Madeline Schizas isn’t from Ottawa, but her coach is, and given the steely nerves this 18-year-old displayed yesterday with Canada’s fate in the team competition resting squarely on her shoulders, Derek Schmidt most definitely deserves a tip of our hat today too.

Schizas delivered what’s being described as “the skate of her life” to pull Canada into the final round of the team event, lifting Canada from 6th place to 4th in the standings. Earning the third-best score out of the women’s skaters, Schizas allowed Canada to survive the cutdown where the bottom 5 of 10 teams after the short program do not advance to skate long programs.

“I’m glad she was able to perform the program as planned, and as she’s done many times in practice before,” Schmidt wrote in an email to the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Dan Plouffe. “Sometimes the moment gets away from you and things don’t go your way, so I’m happy that she was able to control things and skate the way she did. Both (co-coach) Nancy (Lemaire) and I are very happy with the skate, it was basically her maximum.”

The 2021 World Championships were just the second time Schizas skated at the senior international level, and she wound up earning the best Canadian performance out of the bunch.

Fellow Olympic rookie Roman Sadovsky, 22, struggled in the men’s discipline, thrust into the team event while Keegan Messing – who won the national title in Ottawa in January – waiting at home awaiting COVID clearance to board a flight to Beijing.

The team’s veterans – ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, and pairs skaters Michael Marinaro and Kirsten Moore-Towers – did fairly well, but still finished middle-of-the-pack, which meant Schizas needed to come up big to keep the Canadians alive and give them a chance to skate for a medal.

“There was pressure coming in just with the fact that the women skate last, so something would matter,” Schmidt noted. “We kind of knew that ahead of time, but it could have been trying to keep a spot as well as getting a spot. We talked a lot about the one thing we could control is doing the program the way we always do, and that would be all we could do to give the team the best chance.”

Derek Schmidt. File photo

Schmidt, who competed in five senior men’s nationals as a Gloucester Skating Club athlete, probably wouldn’t want to remind his young athlete about needing to uphold Canada’s proud skating tradition, built by the likes of Ottawa legends Barbara Ann Scott and Elizabeth Manley. Though the expectations weren’t as high for Canada this year – with only Eric Radford returning from the PyeongChang 2018 gold medal-winning team that included Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – this is still a sport with an enormous history of success of Canada, and missing the final round of the team competition wouldn’t have exactly mirrored the legacy. But high stakes don’t seem to faze Schizas in the slightest.

“She’s very well prepared, but she also has an ability to make herself do things in those moments like very few athletes I’ve worked with have,” indicated Schmidt, who spent the bulk of his 20-year coaching career with Ottawa’s Gloucester, Minto and Nepean skating clubs before moving to the Milton Skating Club in the western GTA 5 years ago.

“One of my first memories coaching her was at a Skate Canada Challenge event 4 years ago when she was in novice ladies,” Schmidt added. “Before she skated to her spot to start her program, she looked at me and said she was going to skate a clean program.

“That was the first time a skater had ever said that to me right before they skated. Most skaters are nervous and need encouragement or reassurance at that point. She didn’t, and she skated clean.”

Canada was able to send just one coach for Schizas to Beijing, so Lemaire made the trip, while Schmidt chips in as a “virtual” coach – watching her practices live on a Whatsapp video call, and then reviewing video and providing feedback each day. (You can read more about how COVID has impacted Schmidt in this article from last year by High Achievers columnist Martin Cleary).

Schmidt will be watching from his living room when Schizas will again be the last Canadian on the ice for the team event. The women’s long program begins tonight at 10:35 p.m. EST (the pair and ice dance segments are earlier, starting at 8:15 p.m.)

Jamie Lee Rattray in the midst of 3 games in 4 nights: ‘We’ve all been dying for it’

Jamie Lee Rattray and Team Canada have blasted out of the blocks with massive 12-1 and 11-1 wins over Switzerland and Finland in their first two games of the women’s hockey tournament.

“It’s been quite a fun few days for us,” Rattray said in an interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Dan Plouffe on the team’s off-day before their game against the Russians. “We’re playing well together and clicking right now.”

Rattray has tormented opposing defenders with her speed, and has got herself on the scoresheet in the routs, with a pair of highlight-reel assists and then a top-shelf backhand goal as perfect as you’ll see.

Jamie Lee Rattray (left) celebrates one of Canada’s 23 goals in its first two games. Photo: Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images

“It feels good to get some points and stuff like that, but I think overall, you can be really happy about how we are playing as a team,” she signalled. “I don’t think you really ever expect to score that many goals in any game, but what’s been really nice is that the 20-odd goals that we’ve scored, it’s kind of been from everywhere and different ways, and as a unit of five (players on the ice).

“It’s been fun to be a part of that, and with the way we’ve been playing, that just shows that the way we’ve been training all year has really started to come together.”

Playing 3 matches in 4 days could have served up a bit of a shock to the system after having so few games over the past 2+ years – with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League shutting down, and then COVID – but Rattray wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think we’ve all been dying for it,” she said, noting that the team nonetheless made the most of training with each other. “You’re practicing against some of the best players in the world every single day, so it’s hard not to get better, but we were all kind of excited just to get into the rhythm of the tournament.”

It’s been a long and winding road for the 29-year-old to at last make her debut on sport’s grandest stage, and she is loving every minute of it.

“It’s really sort of sinking now, that we’re actually at the Olympics,” reflected Rattray, who marched into the Bird’s Nest Friday behind her captain and flag bearer Marie-Philip Poulin. “Walking in the opening ceremonies was definitely something I’ll never forget. And finally playing that first game really made it feel real.”

Rattray’s off-day plans were simple: sit and watch the Olympics.

“It’s cool seeing other Canadian athletes compete and then seeing them in the caf eating dinner or lunch. It’s a pretty cool feeling to be a part of a bigger Team Canada,” she underlined. “This being my first Games, I was trying to take in as much as I could, but also focus on what needs to be done and the end goal. You know, it took a long time to get here.”

Day 6 preview: Ivanie Blondin’s road to redemption continues with intriguing opportunity in 1,500 m

After a disappointing 14th-place finish in the women’s 3,000 metres, Ivanie Blondin will be back on the ice overnight tonight for her second skate of the Games.

The 1,500 metres will be a very interesting competition for Blondin. The 31-year-old first excelled internationally in the longer 3,000/5,000 m distances, but as she’s developed into an all-around skater – with a gift for the mass start speciality in particular, which requires a big sprint at the end – the shorter 1,500 event has entered her wheelhouse as well.

Blondin is ranked 11th in the 1,500, so it’s not like a medal is expected from her, but the longer Olympic schedule will allow her to focus on this race a little more than when she’s hammering in multiple races each weekend (or day) on the World Cup circuit.

“I’m excited to perform. Whatever happens, I will accept,” Blondin said, confidently and boldly, in a pre-Games interview with Martin Cleary.

Ivanie Blondin. File photo

When Speed Skating Canada’s Olympic team was announced, Blondin said she was headed to Beijing “with a goal of redemption, after my last Olympic Games, and a drive to make myself and all Canadians proud.”

With 21 gold, 24 silver and 22 bronze medals from her spectacular World Cup career, an Olympic podium performance is one item missing from the two-time Ottawa Sports Awards Kristina Groves Female Athlete of the Year Trophy winner’s resumé.

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, including a crash in the women’s mass start semi-final-round in PyeongChang.

“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,” Blondin reflected. “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 now feels better equipped to handle disappointments – like the 3,000 race in Beijing – and she’ll also be able to draw on her experience from this past fall’s Canadian championships. There, she felt ready to crumble after a poor first race, but managed to return strong for the rest of the event. And while her St. Bernard and her parrot (and her human family) couldn’t come to China, she does have her teammates in her corner too.

Ivanie Blondin (left) and Isabelle Weidemann. Photo: Dave Holland / Speed Skating Canada

“We’ve grown quite close as teammates, we’ve trained together for many, many years now, so it is very challenging to to watch her struggle,” fellow Gloucester Concordes product Isabelle Weidemann noted during a media conference call this morning (stay tuned for more on our newly-minted medallist in a moment!)

“I know that she was quite upset with with how she raced,” added Weidemann, who skated in the next pair after Blondin. “Myself and the rest of my team are just very, very proud of all the work that she’s done this year. She’s worked on so many things behind the scenes just to get her to this point.

“But it is obviously hard to watch somebody that you’re very close with go through that. I think we’re forgetting about yesterday, and we’re, as a team, really looking forward to the team pursuit, which is something that we’ve succeeded in and worked very hard at all year.”

Canada won all three World Cup team pursuit races this season. It’s the fourth of five events on Blondin’s calendar for the Olympics alongside the 5,000 m on Feb. 10 and the mass start on Feb. 19.

Ottawa Olympians’ Schedule:

Also in action:

It’s a big day in Beijing for Ottawa’s Olympians. On top of Blondin, there is also Morris and Homan’s must-win match against undefeated Italy, and then hopefully the mixed doubles curling semi-finals after that.

With dominant 12-1 and 11-1 victories under their belts to open the Olympics, Jamie Lee Rattray and the Canadian women’s hockey team will look to keep that momentum going in their next contests against the Russians. (You’ll hear lots more about Jamie in our coverage tomorrow in advance of Canada’s final round robin contest against arch-rival USA.)

‘Surreal, and incredibly special’ medal win for Weidemann

Isabelle Weidemann has kept up a hectic pace since winning Canada’s first Olympic medal yesterday in the women’s 3,000 metres.

Team Canada long-track speed skater Isabelle Weidemann receives her bronze medal from the women’s 3,000 m during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Sunday, Feb. 6. Photo: Kevin Light/COC

“I’m gonna have to learn to sleep again,” she cracked during a media conference call after collecting her medal. “Lots of media, lots of stuff I’ve never done before. A little bit of an emotional rollercoaster as well. But very exciting. And I’m very proud.”

In yesterday’s coverage, we told you all about how Weidemann’s journey to the Olympic podium has mirrored the path taken by her “hometown hero” Kristina Groves, whose 3,000 m bronze in Vancouver was one of 4 career Olympic medal wins.

“She’s been my mentor and somebody that I’ve looked up to in speed skating for so long,” Weidemann highlighted. “She was the one – after winning bronze in Vancouver – that kind of ignited my own Olympic dream in speed skating.

“So it was very surreal, and incredibly special. I mean, to put my name kind of alongside her is… It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but it’s very incredible.”

Weidemann thanked all the teammates, staff, coaches and supporters “who have believed in me for so, so long,” and of course her family, for making her medal win possible.

“I automatically think of my parents and my siblings,” she underlined. “I have a big crazy family that supports me so unconditionally from home, and yeah, I’m proud to bring them back a big souvenir.”

The Weidemann clan was of course watching back home – that is now Calgary, by the way, the whole family having moved there to the national team’s home base to support the journey.

“It’s sad not to compete in front of my family, as well not to have their support here in person,” signalled the sister of Jake (who’s also developing on the national team) and Lily, and daughter of John and former Gloucester Concordes club president Laurel (who was naturally “over the moon” when interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen‘s Taylor Blewett).

“I know that my friends and family are all watching back home, and those are the people that I compete for regardless, so it’s a little bit different, but it’s exciting nonetheless,” she added. “And it’s just been incredible – so many Canadians, so many friends and family sent me just such beautiful messages even before I raced, saying they were incredibly proud of all the work that I done. It’s overwhelming.”

Though COVID kept the Weidemanns from travelling, there was one little bonus that our advanced digital world has helped provide, and we’ll leave you with that today – the emotional video of them watching Isabelle’s dreams come true.

This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Olympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.

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