Speed skater Catriona Le May Doan of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, won back-to-back gold medals in the women’s 500 m event at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She also won a bronze medal in the women’s 1000 m event at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. On 22 November 1997, Le May Doan became the first female speed skater to break the 38 second barrier in the women’s 500 m at a World Cup in Calgary. Her final world record time of 37.22 seconds (set on 9 December 2001) lasted more than five years. On 30 November 2015, Catriona Le May Doan spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia.
CL: I followed my sister. She started [speed skating] a year before I did. At the time I did both sports. I think the reason I chose speed skating is because personality wise, I am more of an individual sport person.
JF: What are your fondest memories from the Saskatoon Lions Speed Skating Club?
CL: I know it sounds weird, but probably my best memories are going outside when it was freezing cold. That part wasn’t fun, but the sound of the blade across the super cold, crisp ice when the weather was -30 degrees Celsius on a still night without the wind is something I will never forget.
JF: At what point in your speed skating career did you believe you could become a high performance athlete?
CL: I think during my mid-teens, [when] I made a junior team, and then a development team. I then started to realize that making the national team was a possibility. I don’t know if I ever believed that I would achieve what I have achieved.
CL: They were huge. I really believe it was crucial to my success at the Olympics to have experienced a multi-sport games at a younger level. I won three medals [one silver medal and two bronze medals]. I wanted that Canada Winter Games gold medal, but I never got it. It was tough competition. The Canada Winter Games really drove me. It also made me aware of the other athletes from other sports and the other teams that came from not only my province of Saskatchewan, but the rest of the country.
CL: It was. I was only 17 years old. Having kids now, I could not even imagine my kids leaving the house at age 17. I was nervous because I did not really know anybody and I was about to live in residence at the University of Calgary. I was also excited because this was the step I wanted to take and that was about going to the Olympic Winter Games. This was going to be my opportunity to perhaps get there. Change is always scary but exciting at the same time.
JF: What was it like to become the first woman ever to break the 38-second barrier in the 500 m event ?
CL: It was epic. I remember looking at the clock and it was kind of shocking knowing you’ve done something that nobody has ever done before. I think the hard part is when you are so good at something, you are a perfectionist and you’re trying to chase something that is not there. I was excited, but was always looking at what was next.
JF: In the women’s 500 m at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, you and Susan Auch of Winnipeg, Manitoba, won the gold and silver medals respectively and became the first Canadians since 1908 to win gold and silver in the same event at an Olympic Games. How did it feel to become part of Canadian sports history?
CL: Overwhelming and yet I am not sure it really hit me. You kind of go along with it at the time. It was a dream come true. What you accomplish doesn’t really hit you right then. I think it takes years for it to actually sink in.
JF: What are you the most proud of from your Olympic bronze medal in the women’s 1000 m race at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano?
CL: Any one of ten women could have won the gold, silver or bronze. It was a real physical and mental battle … I am really proud of my toughness and of coming down from the excitement of winning the 500 metres. I was able to focus, persevere, deal with the stress and pressure, and actually put that race together.
JF: How meaningful was it for you to carry the flag for Canada at the closing ceremonies of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano and at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City?
CL: At the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, it was a bit of a whirlwind. I remember being asked by Canadian Chef de Mission Brian Wakelin if they could speak with me. I thought I was in trouble over something. Then they asked me if I would carry flag, and I was so excited and honoured.
Carrying the flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City was a huge honour. To be asked to lead our team into the stadium in what I knew would be my last Olympic Winter Games, was an incredible feeling. There were two things about the time that made it so memorable. The first was that there was talk of a “flag jinx” — that if you carried the flag, you wouldn’t win gold. I wanted to prove that it was wrong. The second was that just before we entered the stadium, I met the gentleman who carried the placard saying Canada. I learned his name was Brian Maxwell and [that he] had qualified for marathon running for Team Canada at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. However, Canada boycotted [the 1980 Games] and he never got a chance to compete. His words have stuck with me: “so here I am — 22 years later and I finally get my chance to walk into the stadium with team Canada.” He was a huge inspiration in how to deal with things that you have no control over. Brian had a heart attack in 2004 and died, and I consider myself fortunate to have met him.
JF: How difficult was it to successfully defend your Olympic gold medal in the women’s 500 m event at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City?
CL: It was way more difficult than I ever realized. Again, it took me years to figure this one out. There was so much pressure going into the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. It is still difficult to imagine that no male or female Canadian had ever done that [defended their gold medal in the same individual event] at the Olympic Winter Games or Olympic Summer Games. It seems like an impossible thing to accomplish. It’s still kind of mind boggling I was the first ever and there has only ever been two Canadians who have successfully defended their individual gold medalin the same event. [Le May Doan was followed by Alexandre Bilodeau, who won the men’s moguls freestyle skiing competition at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi]. The achievement took years and years to sink in….
JF: Many of your most spectacular performances came at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. What was it like to compete in so many races in front of your home crowd?
CL: I loved it, but at the same time there was a lot of added pressure as well. I always wanted to do well at home. We loved the fast ice, and got to feel comfortable. There’s so much added pressure when your family and friends are right there and they are there to watch you.
JF: Were you surprised that your world record time of 37.22 seconds in the women's 500 m event lasted more than five years before it was broken by Jenny Wolf of Germany in 2007?
CL: I was a bit surprised it held for so long. It was a fast time, but I still think of how many mistakes I made in the race. It does surprise me that no Canadian has come close to that time.
JF: Since your retirement in 2003, Cindy Klassen, Clara Hughes, Christine Nesbitt and Kristina Groves have achieved international success in Olympic speed skating competition. Younger skaters like Ivanie Blondin and Heather McLean are also making their mark on the world stage. Why do you think Canadian female long track speed skaters have had sustained success?
CL: I think part of it is having the legacy of the Olympic Oval from the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. The perfect training conditions and fast ice at the Olympic Oval have helped. Canadian female long track speed skaters have had success in all distances, so I think that is unique. We are a country that is brought together by sport and people inspire each other. I think that is perfectly visible with what has happened in speed skating.
JF:Since your retirement, you have been very active in public speaking and broadcasting, including co-hosting CTV’s morning coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. What has it been like working in Canadian sports broadcasting?
CL: It has been great. It’s been interesting. I love bringing the stories about Canadian athletes to Canadians. It’s also frustrating because there is never enough amateur sport on television for me. We are at the mercy of the networks. I just hope we can continue to cover more and more amateur sport.
JF:Did you find it an easy transition to broadcasting, or has it been really challenging?
CL: It was actually an easy transition for me. I had done a lot of public speaking so I think that really helped me feel comfortable on the air.
CL: No. It’s been fun. I came from a British family. We are quite a small family and a lot are overseas. The Doan family is large, and are all very tight knit. It has been neat and exciting, especially for our kids who can say, "I have family that have been involved with the NHL [Shane Doan, captain of the Arizona Coyotes] and the Olympics."
JF: How did it feel for you to be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2005?
CL: It was great. I was part of a really neat crew that included the Canadian hockey team that won the 1972 Summit Series. It was a huge honour and when you sort of look beyond your sport and realize it is just not Olympic sport, but all sport, it is pretty great. At that time, there was not the actual Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary like there is now. Now that you see the Hall, that’s when it really hits you how big the honour is.
JF: What Canadian has inspired you the most and why?
CL: For sure Terry Fox. When I first started speed skating, he was doing his run. I remember as a little girl watching him on television and seeing images of him on the news and thinking, "how is this guy doing this?" It just seemed incredible. He has always been an inspiration. He taught me no matter what is thrown at you, you persevere. Over time at some point we all come to an end and to look at the legacy he has left and the fact that his legacy has gotten stronger over the years, it is just incredible.
JF: You are very active with a number of organizations, including Right to Play and the Special Olympics. What motivates you to donate so much of your time and energy?
CL:I don't do it just to feel good, but helping with these organizations really fulfills me. Knowing that you’re helping and knowing that you might make somebody’s day, but at the end of it when they have made yours, is so fulfilling. It’s not something like a glimpse and it is gone. It’s something that will impact me for a lifetime. It’s wonderful and I am so proud and pleased that I am able to do that.
JF: Can you tell me about some of your most memorable experiences with these organizations?
CL: With Right to Play, being able to play basic games with kids who cannot communicate through language but are able to communicate through game and sport, is incredible. For the Special Olympics, I was an honorary coach for Canada’s Special Olympics Team for the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and attended the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the athletes really well and being able to watch them give it their all, I would say, is very fulfilling.
JF: If there is one thing you would like the public to know about Catriona Le May Doan, what is it?
CL: People think that because I have skated at high speeds and competed on the world stage, I am a daredevil. If my kids would hear that word, they would laugh so hard — I am not a fast skier because I am afraid of hurting myself. I don’t mountain bike or do anything that would be labelled as a daredevil.
JF: Finally, what is it like to be a parent of two children?
CL: I have a daughter and a son. I coach my daughter’s ringette team and my husband coaches our son’s hockey team. I love that we are involved in their community sport. I was never pushed as a kid and that is something I never wanted to do to my kids. I believe if my kids want to do sports, they should choose to do it themselves. I love sport, but being a mom is so fulfilling too.
In February 2016, Catriona Le May Doan joined Sport Calgary as senior director of community engagement and marketing. In a subsequent email conversation, Jeremy Freeborn asked Le May Doan to comment on her new position.
JF: How gratifying is it for you to be involved with Sport Calgary?
CL: I am passionate about sport at all levels. Being involved in Sport Calgary will allow me to help Calgary's citizens experience the power of sport, whether they are trying new activities or focused on getting to the national level.
This interview has been edited and condensed.