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High hopes, modest expectations for Canada's long-track team in Sochi

January 22, 2014 - 2:35 PM

CALGARY - Canada's long-track speedskating team heads to Sochi lacking the dominant athletes it had at previous Winter Olympics.

The speedskating oval has been fertile medal ground for Canada with five won in Vancouver in 2010 and eight in Turin, Italy, in 2006.

"Two to three medals" is the modest goal for the 17 athletes introduced Wednesday at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. And that may be ambitious given the top medal contenders haven't consistently stood on the international podium this season.

Multi-medallists Clara Hughes and Kristina Groves retired after 2010. Cindy Klassen, winner of a record five medals by herself in 2006, did not compete this winter because of a concussion.

Jeremy Wotherspoon was a dominant sprinter at World Cups and world championships although he won a single silver at his four Olympic Games. He came out of retirement to race at Olympic trials earlier this month, but his comeback fell short.

So the 2014 long-track team includes 10 athletes who will make their Olympic debuts in Russia.

"We don't have Cindy or Kristina or Clara, the people who are guaranteed medals anymore," Edmonton sprinter Jamie Gregg said. "The expectations should be fairly low for the team as far as medal counts go.

"That being said, when expectations are low that's when really special things can happen . . . maybe some breakout performances that are not necessarily expected."

Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., is the defending Olympic champion in the women's 1,000 metres, but has struggled with her racing form and confidence. She finished outside the top 10 in her two World Cup events in November.

Nesbitt was fifth in the world sprint championships in Nagano, Japan, last week. She was en route to Europe and did not attend Wednesday's event in Calgary.

Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., Regina's Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux of Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., are the reigning Olympic champions in the men's pursuit, although they too have yet to stand on an international podium this winter.

Morrison pointed out they were longshots heading into Vancouver and plan to play the underdog card again.

"People discount us," he said. "The last few weeks we've been working together a lot and I think we might surprise a few people."

The 28-year-old was a consistent medal producer for Canada until breaking his left leg during the 2012-13 season.

Morrison fell in the 1,000 metres at the Olympic trials this month, but qualified for his third Winter Olympics in the 1,500. Morrison is a former world record holder in the distance.

"I'm just happy to be on this team and have made it," he said. "Coming back from a broken leg makes me an underdog."

Gregg and Gilmore Junio of Calgary are contenders in the men's 500 as both have won World Cup medals this winter. Junio tied for first at a World Cup in Salt Lake City in November.

The women's pursuit team of Nesbitt, Ottawa's Ivanie Blondin and Winnipeg's Brittany Schussler also have a shot at the podium in Sochi.

Nesbitt, Morrison, Makowsky, Gregg, Giroux, Schussler and Calgary's Anastasia Bucsis are the Olympic veterans. Bucsis was devastated to not make Canada's World Cup team at fall trials, so regaining her spot on the team in time for Sochi felt particularly sweet.

"I sat in the bleachers about two months ago and I bawled my eyes out," Bucsis said. "I got my ego handed to me.

"I started concentrating on what I had control over and let go of all the things that were out of my control. I accepted my situation and where I was and tried to make the best of it."

"If I would have just squeaked into that World Cup team, I don't think I would have done the self-analysis and reflected on what I needed to improve on to that extent."

The Olympic long-track team will include a married couple as Gregg's wife Danielle Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., also qualified for Sochi. Wotherspoon-Gregg is Jeremy's younger sister.

"My mom keeps asking if we're the first married couple to go as speedskaters," Gregg said. "It's not a big deal to us. We grew up speedskating and our relationship has been speedskating the whole time.

"It's just kind of a natural progression from where we started and this is a great way to finish."

Regina's Kali Christ, Marsha Hudey of White City, Sask., Calgary's Kaylin Irvine, Brianne Tutt of Airdrie, Alta., Vincent De Haitre of Cumberland, Ont., William Dutton of Humboldt, Sask., and Ouardi Muncef of Quebec City round out the Olympic team.

The Olympic speedskating schedule starts Feb. 8 with the men's 5,000 metres and concludes Feb. 22 with the men's and women's pursuit.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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