By Dan Plouffe
Ivanie Blondin made her dreams come true this season, but as her 2021-2022 speed skating campaign concluded Sunday in The Netherlands, she was most excited to simply sleep without thinking too much about what her next dream might be.
“At this point, I’m just happy the season’s over,” Blondin said from her hotel room in Heerenveen, the speed skating world’s mecca. “Coming back from the Games, I needed to press the mental reset button, and also just physically, I’m a little tired right now. I think it showed in the results this past weekend.”
Blondin placed 10th in the 1,500 metres, 11th in the 3,000 m and fourth in the mass start at the season’s final World Cup event. She was disappointed to lose a battle to the finish by .07 seconds with Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida in the mass start and drop down to second place in the overall season standings.
“But all in all, I’m very happy with my season,” underlined the 31-year-old.
The Winter Olympics were of course the big highlight of 2022. Over the course of two weeks in Beijing, Blondin relived her journey of the past four years, when she crashed to the bottom and then built herself back up.
The winner of 21 gold, 24 silver and 22 bronze career World Cup medals was crushed to come home empty-handed after the 2018 Olympics, and some of those feelings resurfaced when she finished 14th and 13th in her opening 3,000 m and 1,500 m races in Beijing.
She decided to skip the 5,000 m to focus on the team pursuit competition, where she wound up winning a gold medal alongside Ottawa’s Isabelle Weidemann and Valérie Maltais.
“To bring home a gold medal with them was quite special” and allowed her to breathe “a sigh of relief to finally get on an Olympic podium,” recounted Blondin, who was then able to skate her final event of the Games without that burden.
When Blondin arrived on the start line for the Feb. 19 mass start – her speciality – she’d already won a mental performance battle, and went on to add a silver medal as well.
“I felt like the mass start was just kind of the cherry on top – whatever happens, happens,” reflected the Gloucester Concordes product. “And then I think I realized at that point to just try to have fun with it. It’s potentially going to be my last Olympics – I don’t what the future is going to hold – but try to enjoy the moment.
“I get lost in that pretty frequently. I was really hard on myself after the 3k and the 1,500, and then I scratched the 5k. The beginning of my Olympics, it was quite a struggle, but to be able to turn it around and step on to podiums after that, I think, for me, was a big mental breakthrough.
“I wasn’t able to do that last Olympics – every performance got worse and worse and worse, so I guess I’m proud of myself for that.”
‘The post-Olympic blues’
Returning to Canada with a pair of prizes reflecting a lifetime of work didn’t feel quite as triumphant for Blondin as the script for a dream-come-true fairytale goes.
Mental health has been ongoing challenge for Blondin during her quest to be the best, and COVID and world conflicts packed on even more stress. (COVID in fact kept Weidemann from traveling to the World Cup Final, and moved her from the top of the season’s long-distances standings down to 6th – just ahead of Blondin and Maltais).
“I was struggling quite a bit through the Games, and I’m happy that I still kind of pulled it off, but coming home it was still a mental struggle for me,” highlighted the Orléans native who moved to Montreal as a teenager to join the national short-track team, and later joined the long-track program in Calgary.
“I thought coming home with two medals that I would have a different feeling. But I still went into that dark place where I just I didn’t want to see anyone, I didn’t want to do anything, I had a hard time even dog walking at that point.
“It’s hard. The post-Olympic blues is real. I think the more that we talk about it, the better it gets, and for athletes to have that awareness that it’s normal to feel this way.
“Some people come home from the Games and they have that boost of energy from getting on the podium.
“But I think it’s only natural as a human being – who’s living all these emotions, highs and lows at the Olympics – to come home and need to decompress, and just be real with yourself. If you need that mental break, you need that mental break.
“It’s hard, and everyone deals with it differently. For me, unfortunately, I kind of dug myself a hole and felt like I was a little bit trapped when I came home.”
Blondin tried to cancel the flights she’d booked for a self-funded trip to the March 5-6 World Allround Speed Skating Championships in order to have a longer mental and physical break before the World Cup Final, but was unable to get a refund from Expedia, so off she went to Norway.
The 2020 world allround silver medallist placed 11th this year, and then went on to the March 12-13 World Cup Final to finish the circuit’s five-stop tour in The Netherlands.
Blondin recognizes that her performances this season are a big accomplishment, and she also realizes she needs to take some time to relax.
Blondin will have meetings next week in Calgary to help zero in on future plans. For the moment, that includes spending more time on her bike in the offseason, with an eye on entering a few road or track cycling races for fun, and also to see where it might take her.
“Maybe it’s just for training, maybe I’ll be good at racing – I have no idea at this point,” signalled the 2007 Canadian Junior Track Cycling Championships double-medallist.
Blondin has no designs on mounting a charge for the Olympics in cycling at present – like fellow Concordes athlete Vincent De Haître did for the Tokyo Games – but she anticipates it will provide a nice change for this summer after going all-in and achieving her biggest speed skating goals.
“Two medals at the Games is really unbelievable and it’s what I wanted to accomplish,” noted Blondin, who also loves spending time outdoors in the Rockies. “I’m not exactly sure where the future will bring me, or if I’ll want to continue skating next year or the year after – I have no idea at the moment.”
One thing Blondin is sure of is that she wants to come to Ottawa and pick up the traditional reward she receives for top performances from her old Concordes coach Mike Rivet – a slab of his “world’s best” Rice Krispies squares.
And she feels it’s also time to crack into another gift from Rivet, who she called a dozen times in the weeks before leaving for Beijing to talk about speed skating, the Olympics and her long journey in the sport.
“A couple years back, he gave me a bottle of champagne and he told me to save this for that special moment,” Blondin smiled. “It’s actually sitting in my parents’ basement, which is kind of my bedroom now, so I’ll be looking forward to going home and sharing that with him.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.