Cindy Klassen Canada's Greatest Olympian | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Cindy Klassen Canada's Greatest Olympian

They're heavy, they'd all say, after their deeds are done, and the ribbon is reverently placed around their necks and they've earned the right to feel the heft of it.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 6, 2006

Cindy Klassen Canada's Greatest Olympian

They're heavy, they'd all say, after their deeds are done, and the ribbon is reverently placed around their necks and they've earned the right to feel the heft of it. The Canadian women said it most, for they did the lifting in Turin - winning Olympic medals at more than twice the rate of men as the XX Olympic Winter GAMES drew to a close last weekend. "It's pretty friggin' solid," crowed Chandra Crawford, Canada's bright new hope in cross-country, as she clutched her gold. "The real deal," said bobsledder Lascelles Brown, Jamaican-born and a newly minted Canadian, strutting his silver after the medals ceremony last week.

And then there is speed skater magnifico, Cindy KLASSEN, Canada's heavy medal queen. She entered these Games with the weight of great expectations upon her, and she delivered. Four races, four podium finishes: a bronze, two silver, one gold. With one race left to squeeze in before the closing ceremonies, she'd already won more medals than any Canadian at a single Olympic Games. Add to that the bronze she won four years ago at her first Olympics in Salt Lake City and she is already, at the age of 26, the first Canadian woman with five career medals. And what does she say about her medals? Why, they're heavy, of course. And where will she store these treasures? "Maybe in a closet," says Canada's greatest Olympian. "I'm not sure. I don't really display things like that."

And there, in a nutshell, was the challenge her support crew faced entering these Games. When the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) predicts - no, virtually decrees - she will be the golden girl of Turin, how do you nurture, protect and inspire a woman who does not worship medals, nor seek public acclaim, nor yearn for glory of the earthly sort? For coach Neal Marshall and sports psychologist Derek Robinson, the answer was to make a video. They pulled together a 20-minute montage of an exceptional pre-Olympic year, keeping the focus on Klassen's small, tight training group, which includes fellow skaters Jason Parker, Steven Elm and Brittany Schussler among others. Set to contemporary rock tunes, it shows their World Cup successes, as well as the toil, the travel, and the off-ice antics that make it all tolerable. "It's just a group that's exceptional to be around," says Robinson.

Klassen is a private person, but she revealed something of her inner self when she spoke of that video during a pre-Olympic news conference in a packed Turin restaurant. "This whole year has been about growing as individuals," she said, her voice wobbling with emotion. "Not just as speed skaters on the ice [but] just learning to be better people and having fun with what we're doing." These are the things that matter to Klassen, says Marshall. "Those are good emotions."

Klassen is a voracious reader of popular fiction and non-fiction, and of the Bible. The latter reminds her, she has often said, that her ability is a gift to be used respectfully. The outcome of a race, she believes, is preordained. "All I can do is use what He's given me," she told the Christian publication Living Light News. "All I can do is the best I can."

She recently loaned her coach a book, Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, the true-life tale of a young man's fatal odyssey into the Alaskan backcountry. Marshall was struck by a passage which he later shared with his team. "The quote was: 'A challenge where a successful outcome is assured is no challenge at all.' " That, says Marshall, two days before the team's first race, "totally applies to what we're doing here."

The video, in other words, needs an ending. One only Klassen herself could discover.

Feb. 9, 3 p.m., Oval Lingotto, Turin

One day before opening ceremonies. Medal favourite Jeremy Wotherspoon, in a ratty skin suit, and Klassen in black warm-ups, are among those cruising the track, trying to divine what secrets are hidden in the ice. Each moves in quiet isolation, conferring with their coaches. They try their starts, practise their corners; then, as if coiling a spring, they circle the oval, building momentum, their muscled legs holding them at impossible 49-degree angles as they attack the outside turns. The effect, at a full speed that tops out at close to 65 km/h, is almost eerie. Only the flash of blades and faint click of hinged clap skates ruin the illusion that they have achieved a form of silent, wingless flight.

Klassen is an exception even among this elite group. She is known not only for explosive speed and strength, but for her endurance and versatility. In an era of specialization, she can sprint and she can power through the pain of a five-kilometre race. She toughened herself playing elite AAA boys hockey in Winnipeg. (Indeed, until McDonald's signed on a month ago, the Winnipeg Minor Hockey Assoc. was one of her few sponsors, donating some of its 50/50 pots to the cause.)

Klassen turned to SPEED SKATING only after the crushing disappointment of missing the cut for the national women's hockey team headed for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. For a time, coaches complained she skated like a hockey player. No more. Even if Klassen's face was hidden, Marshall would know her from the swing of her arms, the tilt of her body, the ankle flicks at the end of each stride. "She looks strong to me, that's how I describe her," he says. "They're solid movements. It flows, but you can see this power behind it."

An American coach sidles up to Marshall and complains, sotto voce, his lunch is drying out. Could he wrap his sandwich in one of those silly Canadian skin suits? Marshall's eyes never leave the track. He pauses a beat, then says the front of the Canadian suits are really quite attractive. "Too bad the back is the only side you're going to see." By the genteel standards of Canadian speed skating, that's as close to trash talk as you get.

After months of pre-Olympic media exposure, Canada's long-track coaches have put their athletes in a protective bubble, banning all media interviews until after their events. They're hoping to lessen the distractions and lighten the load of expectations. As if.

Time was Canadian Olympic expectations were managed by not having many. Think Calgary in 1988, a great show that produced just two silver and three bronze for the host country. By 2002, the COC was demanding more. The athletes delivered a record 17 in Salt Lake City, fourth among nations. The ante was upped again in 2003 after the 2010 Games were awarded to Vancouver. An "Own the Podium - 2010" program was established, adding $110 million to sports funding. New goals were set: third place in Turin; first place, meaning at least 35 medals, in Vancouver.

The time for rewarding mediocrity is past, says Cathy Priestner Allinger, who won a speed skating silver at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. She's in Turin as senior vice-president of sport for the 2010 Games. She wants great things here from the long- and short-track program. "We're expecting a lot of medals from it," she says. "But, you know, they're expecting medals, too."

In designing Own the Podium, organizers looked at what the world's top performers had in equipment, research and "performance enhancement teams" of massage therapists, technicians and sports psychologists. "Almost 100 per cent of our winter sports in Canada had less," says Priestner Allinger. They found another glaring weakness: debilitating doubts among even elite Canadian athletes that they were world class. Changing attitudes became a priority, she says. "We've got to get an identity for winning and not being embarrassed, or feeling like you're bragging, because you want to be No. 1," she says.

She detects a more bullish Canadian attitude at these Games, she says. Even in Cindy Klassen, in her quiet way, Priestner Allinger says with a grin. "You don't have to be arrogant to say you want to be the best at what you're spending every day - hours and hours a day - trying to perfect. They're giving up everything else in their lives for their sport. If they can win a medal because of that, they shouldn't be embarrassed to say they want to."

Feb. 12, Oval Lingotto

Women's 3,000-m. Bronze.

Jake and Helga Klassen are blessed with four children, daughters Cindy, Faye and Lisa, and son Cary. All were active in sports and music and the parents often had to split up as they rushed around Winnipeg, fulfilling their roles as chauffeur, fan and parental support unit. Then one Sunday afternoon, after all those kilometres, broken skate laces and restorative hot chocolates, it comes down to this: Row 3, Sect. 112, the Olympic Games. "She's a little nervous," says Jake, as they wait for their daughter's first race. "I guess that's to be expected." So, understandably, are they.

Cindy, a strawberry blonde copy of her mom, is racing five physically demanding events here. Add to that the weight of all those expectations. "I find it really hard to believe it's our child everybody is talking about - that all of Canada is depending on," says Helga. "We just try not to think about it." Jake has a theory about Cindy's ability to handle pressure and hurt. She was born in pain, he says, with a world-class dose of colic. It hung on for three months of wailing, sleepless nights, driving her young parents to distraction. To endure that has to have shaped her character, he figures, "because she's really tough now."

The Klassen clan are devout members of a Mennonite Brethren church in Winnipeg. They are excited and enthusiastic fans, but, rather like Cindy, they aren't given to showy displays of emotion - unlike today's surrounding orange sea of joyously tipsy Dutch skating fans. A CBC camera crew asks if the Klassens will wear a remote microphone to record their reactions. They decline. They don't get very excited, they explain, almost apologetically. Mostly, they say, they pray.

Klassen has an explosive start but fades to finish third. She's in the medals, just ahead of her World Cup rival, "Sexy Anni" Friesinger, as the Olympic News Service calls the German superstar. But she's a sizable two seconds behind surprise gold medallist Ireen Wust of the Netherlands and her teammate Renate Groenewold. During the oval flower presentation, the orange audience is rocking. Klassen, not so much. She holds her bouquet, looking preoccupied and a little lost, like a bridesmaid with designs on the groom.

Immediately after the race, before even the indignity of doping control, the athletes are paraded through a "mix zone." It's a abattoir-style arrangement where they are herded along a row of pens, to be poked and prodded by TV, then radio, then print journalists. It's not an arrangement conducive to sharing innermost thoughts and feelings; it's an environment that breeds clichés the way heat generates salmonella.

"My legs," Klassen says, laughing at the lameness of her explanation, "kind of felt like Jell-O." If she looked grim out there, it's because she was rerunning the race in her head. She misread the oval's slow ice and started too strong, she concludes. "I was a little disappointed I died that much at the end." Still, she's happy enough with third place, she says. But standing with her in the oval's media pen, it's obvious there's a profound shift in attitude since she last raced an Olympic 3,000-m in Salt Lake City. In Utah, four years ago, the bronze was enough.

Feb. 16, Oval Lingotto

Men's and women's team pursuit

Silver & silver

The team pursuit is a new Olympic event that has already injected a welcome degree of mayhem into the venerable sport. Klassen calls it a "puzzle," which is true enough. What you have is a collection of hotshot individuals who are thrown into "teams" of up to five skaters for a two-day event. There are two heats each day, using three skaters from each group. They circle the oval, taking turns "pulling" their teammates from the lead position. Tossing all these egos into a beaker is a bit like emptying the cupboard in chemistry class. Maybe you'll create the miracle of cold fusion. Maybe you'll lose an eye.

For instance, the U.S. men's speed skating "team" - actually, an assemblage of gifted dysfunctionals - redlined after Shani Davis refused to sign on to the relay team, saying he was saving his chops for individual races. Selfish, said team leader Chad Hedrick, who accused Davis of costing the U.S. a medal. Harsh words and hard feelings ensued, to the delight of the American media. They may know squat about speed skating, but a good locker-room dust-up is an experience all can enjoy.

Now contrast this with Canada, where the team pursuits, both men's and women's, became an emotional turning point. This is a close group, and one of their big worries is that Jeremy Wotherspoon, the winningest sprinter in World Cup history and a revered member of the team, hasn't pulled it together at these Olympics. He's not part of the pursuit team, but his predicament is one any teammate can sympathize with. He finished a disappointing ninth in the 500-m sprint (and would later underperform in the 1,000-m), raising unpleasant reminders of his fall in Salt Lake City in 2004. The spectre of an Olympic jinx had to be terminated; along came the pursuit to drive a clap skate through its heart.

There are many strategies to win a team pursuit, and even more ways to lose one. First step for the Canadians began with a year of team building. This may be the huggiest group in speed skating. They travel together, they play together, they even joined with their frantic short-track brethren for a week this summer at Mont Tremblant, Que., where they whitewater rafted, rode mountain bikes, performed silly skits and came away inspired.

Who knows if it helped, but something wonderful happened when the pursuit team of Arne Dankers, Steven Elm, Denny Morrison, Jason Parker and Justin Warsylewicz took to the ice. They were not considered favourites, but they became, says coach Marshall, "greater than the sum of their parts." The result: a silver medal. For the squabbling U.S. team: nada.

The women were an even more complex proposition. How to use Cindy Klassen, the strongest skater on the team? She and Marshall decided, before the Games, she'd skate just two of four heats. Like Davis, she'd save her strength for other events. The team used her in the first heat, to help qualify for the semi-finals, and in the third heat a day later, to qualify for the gold medal race against a stacked German team led by Friesinger. What happened next may have been the team's greatest test. Friesinger, also entered in five events, elected to race. Klassen did not. Germany won gold, Canada silver. The question of whether Klassen could have pulled the team to gold doesn't seem an issue to her delighted co-medallists: Shannon Rempel, Christine Nesbitt, Kristina Groves and Clara Hughes.

Hughes is a woman for all seasons. She now has a silver and bronze in speed skating, and a pair of bronze cycling medals from the Summer Games. But more important to Hughes and to Klassen, it was a team medal. "Anyone who saw us the last few days knows the Canadian girls have been smiling the whole time," Hughes says. "We just said, let's make this fun." And they did, screaming like kids when the men made the gold medal round, whooping it up still as they paraded through the stifling confines of the mix zone. "You can inspire a lot of kids when they see this pure joy," Hughes said, "and that's what we have today." The next day the pursuit teams collect their doughnut-shaped medals in a ceremony in the city centre. And the five Canadian women discover this: when they hold their medals together just so, they form the Olympic rings. "It was awesome," says Klassen.

Feb. 20, 8:10 p.m., Piazza Castello

The medals plaza

It's Monday, so it's medal three for Klassen, the presentation of a silver, for Sunday's 1,000-m race. This is the grandest old square in the city. The medals stage, with its booming sound system and towering video screens, sits like an alien spaceship dropped into this 14th-century piazza. The square and the nearby royal palace reflect the once-boundless ambition of the Savoy dynasty to rule Turin as a great European capital. Napoleon Bonaparte was one among many visiting warriors over the centuries who had other plans; as did Hannibal and Julius Caesar in their eras. The quest for world domination has pretty much defined Turin from the get-go. Where better than here at its historic heart to award the Olympic medals?

Klassen is standing on the silver medal tier of the dais as her brother Cary, jammed with his family near the front of the throng, snaps pictures. She seems pleased as punch, the way you imagine she'd look if she won a fishing derby at the family cottage, or if her chocolate cake earned a red ribbon at the church bazaar. Somehow, after three medals - equal at this point in the Games to the combined output of Great Britain, Bulgaria and Latvia - you're kind of hoping she'll let loose a whoop, high-five the stiff-necked representative of the International Olympic Committee, or blow kisses to this cheering Crowd of Turin. Yes, she raised an arm to the crowd and smiled, but at half the wattage of Friesinger, who finished in bronze, behind Klassen by about the margin of a clap skate blade. If she's having regrets about burning the extra energy by going for gold in the earlier team pursuit race, she's not showing it. Instead Friesinger poses for pictures on the shoulders of two husky German teammates, determined tonight to turn bronze to gold, through the alchemy of her enthusiasm.

It may be more of that Mennonite aversion to self-aggrandizement, but Klassen is understated even by that standard. "That's Cindy," says her mom. Cary nods his head in agreement. She'd slipped out of the athletes' village that afternoon to have lunch with her family near the skating oval. They talked ever so briefly about her historic race. "But after that, it was just joking around like always," her brother says. "I think that's what she enjoys most, just hanging out with us. When it's time to race, that's when she gets into it."

Feb. 22. 5 p.m., Oval Lingotto

Women's 1,500-m. Gold.

The Klassens are back from playing tourist. They've been to museums and castles, and the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista - which houses the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial cloth of Christ. Here in Section 113, they're ready for the start of the women's 1,500-m. Cindy starts in the second-to-last race, in an inspired pairing with Friesinger, her opposite in everything but ability, will and competitive spirit.

Something is nagging. What exactly do you pray for when your daughter is in the biggest race of her life? If you're praying for her to win, aren't you praying for others to lose, and wouldn't that be wrong? It's an impertinent and personal question, but Jake is a gracious man and he takes no offence. "For one thing, that she stays healthy. Anything could happen," he says, remembering, perhaps, the horrible crash 2½ years ago when a skate sliced into her forearm, severing 12 tendons and an artery. And for what else do you pray, he is asked. "To do the best that she can," he says. "That's all you can ask for."

Klassen will later say she awoke refreshed and confident this race day. And for more than any other event at these Games, she felt "at peace." She will also, at her gold medal news conference, tell reporters this about recovering from that terrible accident: "I think my faith grew and I got to spend a lot of time with God. I think that helped me in my skating as well, just to be thankful to be given this gift to be able to speed skate." Such quotes rarely make it into sports stories, there being a desire not to mix church with the state of Canadian sport. But somehow this God thing seems key to explaining the core of Cindy Klassen.

Race 17 is announced. She's an unsmiling warrior, oblivious to the cheers raining from the stands as her name is announced. Cary is right: at the start line, his sister "gets into it." What happened next is known to any Canadian who watched the race on TV. She dropped the hammer on the competition, bumping teammate Kristina Groves from first place to silver, and leaving Friesinger in fourth, a full two seconds behind.

Afterwards, she and a beaming and teary-eyed Groves, with her first individual silver, floated a Canadian flag behind them on a victory lap. It matters only to Klassen where she draws her strength, but on this night, of all nights, the contrast could not have been more profound. Public attention was about to shift to another arena in Turin, and to the crisis of confidence that was a sputtering Canadian hockey team on the verge of defeat.

But not just yet. For a few moments we were allowed to bask in the golden moment of a young woman for whom hockey once represented the greatest failure of her life - until she built something fine and strong from her disappointment, something the nation can share.

She wore a look of pure elation, the kind of radiant smile she'd so carefully rationed throughout these Games. As if saving it for today. As if to say: lighten up Canada, have a little faith.

Maclean's March 6, 2006