You’d think becoming statue material might have at some point crossed his radar—a berth in history to go with all those gongs. But no, says Charles Hamelin, smiling coolly through his saturnine beard. He’s never really thought about that, and he’s not about to start. “If I do it, I do it,” says the short-track superstar from Levis, Que. “It’s like a cherry on the top. But there’s work that has to be done. Tomorrow, I’m on the ice at eight in the morning.”
But for all you mortals who enjoy an occasional swing through the sporting pantheon, here’s the skinny: Hamelin’s masterful race in the 1,500m short-track here in Sochi pulled him even with fellow short-track wizard Marc Gagnon for most gold medals by a Canadian Winter Olympian—three, that is, to go with the silver Hamelin won in 2006.
If you consider that blowing away the field on Monday was Hamelin’s way of vanquishing demons that have haunted him since he let one event slip away from him four years ago (“I had a little disappointment in the 1,500m in Vancouver”); if you consider that what many see as his two best events are yet to come, well, let’s just say the Great Gagnon’s supremacy is under dire threat.
Certainly the 29-year-old from Levis, Que. now belongs in ours greatest-ever conversations, up there with Gagnon and Cindy Klassen and Hayley Wickenheiser. Because say what you want about the short-track’s inherent zaniness, anyone who dominates three distances in any sport, year after year, is more than just an athlete. Even Hamelin’s normally circumspect coaches acknowledge there’s something special going on.
“Charles is able to read his own feeling on the ice,” said his father Yves, team leader of the Canadian short-track squad, after Monday’s race. “Depending on how he feels in a race, he knows if he should push at one specific moment.” Added Derrick Campbell, Hamelin’s coach: “He’s in great shape. He’s fast, and mentally Charles is really, really tough. In terms of his racing skills, he’s really put a lot of polish on his track patterns, his management of his speed and his energy.”
Never were those powers more visible than on Monday at the Iceberg arena. As is his wont, Hamelin burst out to an early lead, setting the pace for the first three of the race’s 13.5 laps. Then, around lap 3, he let himself slip back to third as an energy conservation measure, happy to let others do the heavy lifting so long as they kept up a decent pace. ”The plan was to control the race, to be near the front,” he says. “Maybe not at the front but not too far back, because when you’re seventh, it’s a long way to get back to first place.”
So at lap 6, Hamelin lit the afterburners, surging back in front and never letting up on China’s Tianyu Han, the eventual silver medalist, and Victor An of Russia, who nabbed bronze. His time of 2:14.985 was more than five seconds shy of the world record, but that doesn’t matter in an event that demands you read the pace and cues of your competitors. And Hamelin played his like chess pawns.
Could he have led the race wire to wire, if he’d chosen? It’s worth thinking about. Based on their intervals in the 1,500m, the same group of skaters would have fallen to Hamelin in the 1,000m, which goes next Saturday. The 500m, meanwhile, was a gold-medal event for Hamelin in Vancouver, and has been a particular focus for him during training over the past few weeks. If everything went his way over the next 11 days, he’d become our most decorated winter Olympian—greater, you could argue, than long-track star Klassen, whose one gold, two silver, three bronze until recently seemed unassailable.
It’s all speculation, of course. But notwithstanding Hamelin’s coyness about such brass rings, it’s hard to imagine him resting until he’s gotten this particular one. As his father so succinctly put it on Monday: “Charles is most comfortable in front.”