Marianne St-Gelais awoke in the Olympic village Wednesday—her 20th birthday—with the sweet feeling that comes when you’re young, and the stars are aligned and all things are possible. The day was marked by her fellow short track teammate Charles Hamelin, the most accomplished member of the team. He gave her a bouquet of flowers and some Olympic clothes and the sense she could accomplish great things that night.
As for her race strategy, she had three objectives. “Getting into the top eight was quite feasible,” she said. “The top four was quite ambitious. And the top three was a dream.”
And so she climbed through the preliminary rounds at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum—which were filled with the usual mayhem and disappointments that short track provides—working her way from feasible to ambitious.
And then there were four. Meng Wang, the multi-record holder and near-unstoppable force from China, Arianna Fontana of Italy, and St-Gelais’ teammate, Jessica Gregg of Edmonton, like her, an Olympic rookie.
It took St-Gelais 43.707 seconds to move from the top three to the top two, a very nice place, as dreams go. And while it wasn’t gold—for Wang was indeed unstoppable—the smile that broke out on the birthday girl’s face radiated pure joy as she circled the ice with a Canadian flag, acknowledging the cheers of more than 11,000 fans.
“I pushed myself to the limit,” she said, “and went as far and as fast as I could.”
Wiping away tears, she signed her first autograph before she had even left the ice. Not bad for a gal who only tried the sport as a favour to a neighbour in Roberval, Que., who was president of the local speed skating club and desperate for new members.
The final was bittersweet for 21-year-old Gregg, whose hockey-playing father and speed skating mother were both Olympians. She started from the difficult outside lane and wasn’t able to fight her way ahead of the Italian. She swallowed her disappointment at the fourth-place finish, deciding, she said, that she can consider reaching the final in her first Olympic experience a not bad start. A quite ambitious accomplishment, you might say.
As for St-Gelais, she arrived at the basement media room to be greeted by a rousing chorus of bonne fête. A bottle of champagne was produced. But not opened. There was still doping control to deal with. “I’m going to drink that thing with my teammates and my coach,” she said. As for the medal, it arrives Thursday night at a medal presentation ceremony at B.C. Place, in front of 22,000 people.
“It’s the birthday party of my life,” she said. “It’s a really amazing gift.”