– Derek M. Hansen –
This past year I had the opportunity to work with Canadian Long Track Speed Skaters based in Richmond, British Columbia – the location of the 2010 Olympic Oval. It was a great experience working with a winter sport in preparation for the 2010 Olympics. One story that many coaches and athletes will appreciate is the story of Mathieu Giroux of Montreal, Quebec that trained as a middle- to long-distance speed skater.
Mathieu formerly trained and competed as a short-track speed skater, but decided to switch to long-track one year ago after a number of ankle injuries sustained in training and competition. Mathieu is a hard worker and always maintained a great, jovial attitude toward training, regardless of the workload. Some of the training included doing lunges and jumps the length of a football field over numerous reps and sets. It was enough to make an average athlete quit after the first set. Mathieu always kept a great attitude and a strong will.
One day in June, Mathieu missed a training session, which had never happened before. We were all wondering what had happened. Later in the day, he attended a weight training session and we all asked him why he had missed the training session. He told us that he was at a local Richmond shopping mall picking up a few things when he noticed a Speed Skating Canada kiosk set up by a local sponsor. He went over to investigate and a mall employee standing by the kiosk asked him, “Do you want to know more about the Canadian Speed Skating team”? He laughed and told them that he was actually training with the Canadian team.
The mall employee then excitedly asked Mathieu for help, since one of the Canadian team members – a well-known skater that had competed in numerous Olympics – had not arrived for their appearance at the mall. Mathieu – a virtually unknown athlete – stepped up and manned the kiosk, taking questions from anyone who stopped by the kiosk for a few hours. When he finally arrived at our training session, we all joked that he now was the face of Canadian Long Track Speed Skating in Richmond, even though he was pretty anonymous. I thought it was great that a newcomer had the opportunity to represent the Canadian Olympic team, even on a local scale. I knew that he was a significant longshot to even make the Canadian Olympic team given his late change to long track.
Much to my surprise, six months later and after lots of hard training, Mathieu had qualified for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team in both the 1,500 meters and the Team Pursuit. I thought, “That’s great for Mathieu. Making the Olympic team after switching from short-track is a great achievement that he can build on for the next Olympics.” Little did I know that he was going to make a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined in a very short amount of time.
Last week, Mathieu competed in the men’s 1,500m race and posted a strong performance. He finished in 14th place overall, and was the second best Canadian in the competition behind Denny Morrison. Once again I thought, “That’s great. He was the second best Canadian in one of the most competitive events in Long Track. Good job Mathieu!” He had an opportunity to be a contender four years from now. This was just the beginning.
Imagine my surprise and excitement watching the men’s team pursuit event on Saturday, February 27th, 2010. I had the pleasure of witnessing the Canadian team win a gold medal, with Mathieu playing a significant role. I believe the team may have had an outside chance at a bronze. But they managed to dig deep and take the gold, with all team members working together, literally “pushing” each other to victory. In his interviews following the win, he commented on how his short-track background helped him, saying that he was accustomed to skating in tight packs. His inexperience in long track was overshadowed by the skill-set achieved in short track speed skating.
Immediately, I thought back to that day when Mathieu saved the day for the shopping mall kiosk and spontaneously represented speed skating and his country. I don’t think any of us, including the mall shoppers, could have imagined that Mathieu would now be an Olympic champion. He never gave up on his goal, and ultimately earned the highest honor. It is a good story of commitment, persistence, perseverance and stepping up when the opportunity arises.