Forget the eponymous rec centre in her hometown of Winnipeg, or the 15-foot-high snow sculpture a local sponsor once built of Cindy Klassen speed skating with a herd of bison. Disregard the long-distance calling cards with her picture, the ubiquitous print ads, and the nationally televised McDonald’s commercials. The argument about who is Canada’s most famous Olympian begins and ends with a simple proposition. If the Royal Canadian Mint strikes 22 million coins with your likeness, and your name is not Queen Elizabeth II, you win.
Klassen’s five medals at the 2006 Torino Games—a gold, two silver and two bronze—were the most ever won by any Canadian at an Olympics. Add in the bronze she won four years before in Salt Lake City, and she is the country’s most successful Olympian ever. (Her teammate Clara Hughes owns a total of five Olympic medals—two cycling bronzes from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, a speed skating bronze in Salt Lake City, and a gold and silver in Turin.) She holds five world records. Yet for all the visibility, accolades and past successes, the 30-year-old finds herself heading into the Vancouver 2010 Olympics as a distinct underdog. An athlete whose greatest victory may lie in simply having made these Games at all.
In the summer of 2008, Calgary orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Nick Mohtadi operated on both of Klassen’s knees, removing cartilage and tendons that had been worn almost into oblivion by a decade of workouts, training and racing. Everyone knew going in that the injuries couldn’t be repaired, only ameliorated. But the healing process turned out to be a lot tougher than the speed skater and her coaches had imagined. Originally scheduled to return to the ice that fall, Klassen didn’t manage to strap on the blades until January 2009. “It was such a big deal that we actually videotaped it,” she told Maclean’s. “But when I looked at the tape, I couldn’t believe how I looked.” Plans to return to competition that season were scrubbed, and Klassen didn’t find her way back to the World Cup circuit until this past November, just three months before the start of the Vancouver Games. Even then, the pain was constant.
“It’s been tough because every time I stand up or sit down I can feel them,” Klassen told the Toronto Star at the time. “I guess in my head I think, ‘What are my knees going to feel like when I’m 50?’ . . . Am I going to be able to play with my kids?”
The early results were not favourable. In four World Cup events this season, her best individual finish was ninth—once in the 1,500-m, her gold medal race in Turin, and twice in the 3,000-m, a distance in which she is the world record holder. At the Canadian Olympic trials in Calgary over the Christmas holiday, she failed to qualify for the 1000-m—another distance at which she holds the world record—but did come second in the 1,500-m, 3000-m and 5,000-m, securing berths for Vancouver. Still, her times remain well off what it will take to hit the podium this February.
Klassen’s coach Mike Crowe is not ready to throw in the towel—it is only in the last couple of months that she has really been able to return to serious strength training, he says. The acceleration is coming back, and a new-found focus on skating technique versus her traditional reliance on an abundance of raw power and superior conditioning may yet pay dividends. And past history has proven that opponents write Klassen off at their own peril. At the beginning of the 2003-04 season, a Chinese skater crashed into her in training, slicing a 10-cm gash in her forearm and severing an artery and a dozen tendons. She was back racing before the end of the season, and won two medals at the World Championships.
There have been other lows since the giddy heights of Turin—in January 2008, Klassen’s sister Lisa was critically injured when her SUV plunged off a Winnipeg bridge into the frozen Red River. (After an arduous recovery, she recently returned to her job as a flight instructor.) Neal Marshall, the coach who guided Cindy to such success in 2006, resigned in May 2008, after he was demoted by Speed Skating Canada. And last March, the man who made that decision and several other controversial calls, long-track program director Finn Halvorsen, left amid allegations that he was fostering a climate of fear and loathing on the Canadian team.
Klassen, a devout Christian, is not much for dwelling on such turmoil, or dissecting what it might mean for her performance in Vancouver. Whatever happens at the Richmond Oval this February has already been decided, she says. “I rely heavily on my faith in God. I know it’s in his hands,” she told Maclean’s. “All that’s required from me is to give it my best every time I train or race.” It’s an arrangement that has worked exceptionally well for her in the past. This time, we all might need to have a little faith.
With Ken MacQueen