Speedskating - Country histories

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Main sources: Skøytenytt, WSSSA National All Time & Encyclopedia, results files from Marnix Koolhaas.

Fastest in the world

Despite the northerly latitude, the natural conditions in Canada are not ideal for skating. Coastal climates in the most populated areas are too mild, and inland, large amounts of snow leave open ice a rarity. Still, when it occurred, natives were known to use “ice-legs”, in the Viking style—polished calf bones of animals tied to their feet, to skate on the ice. In 1604, the French explorer Sieur de Monte settled on St. Croix Island, reported their use and copied it along with his party.

Then in the 19th century, masses of immigrants brought skating with them from Europe, and the first race in Canada was held on St. Lawrence River in 1854 between 3 british officers. The first speedskating tournament took place in Kingston, Ontario in 1865 as part of the “Annual Fancy Dress Carnival”. Between 1860 and 1870 about a dozen indoor rinks were built in Canada, and by 1875, skating in Canada was subdivided into catagories called “fancy”, “figure”, “stunt”, “trick”, and “speed”.

Now, things developed fast. Pack races in miles and yards became popular and the best skaters fought matches for money prizes. Like in the US, these were often Irishmen. Hugh McCormick of St. John, New Brunswick, was Canada's first great skater with several world records in the 1880s, including the first mile under 3 minutes, and matches against the great Norwegian champions Axel Paulsen (1890) and Harald Hagen (1892), winning the one and losing the other. McCormick was the first skating dream miler, bringing the mile record under 3 minutes for the first time. Frank Dowd, another Irishman, set world records at 16 and had pro matches against McCormick, but ended his career before he was 20. With his amateurship reinstated, he won the first Canadian amateur championship in 1888.

The McCormick estate has put some history online.

The Canadian Amateur Skating Association was founded in November 1887, and they joined the ISU in 1894 as the first non-European member. The ISU awarded them the world championship 1897, and the championship in Montreal was won in grand style by the home favourite Jack McCulloch of Winnipeg, yet another Irishman, an allrounder who excelled in many sports.

Another record-setting Canadian of the 90s was a Torontoan with the evocative name of Harley Davidson. In the early spring days of 1897, it was reported from Dawson City that the Indian Crutzkonutzkosecki (apparently of Polish descent) from Nuklukahyet had skated the 500 m in 44.8 and the 1500 m in 2.20.2—not unbelievable achievements today, but well below the world records at the time.

Concurrently with the growth of ice hockey, Canadian skaters lost their supremacy in the early parts of the new century to a series of top skaters from the USA, but a few amateur contenders like the sprinters Fred Robson and Lot Roe of Toronto and the allrounders James Drury and Russ Wheeler of Montreal and Fred Logan of St. John brought home some honours. However, the women took over the supremacy the men had lost. Gladys Robinson of Old Orchard SC, Toronto, was the dominant female speedskater in the early 1920s, and from 1925, her clubmate Leila Brooks Potter succeeded her, setting more than a dozen world records. At the Olympic Games in Lake Placid 1932 she skated an exhibition packstyle 1500 m in 2.54.0, when the world record was still 3.10.4. At their best, these two women no doubt were the best female speedskaters in the world at the time irrespective of style, as female speedskating developed earlier in North America than elsewhere.

It took Olympic Games to make the first Canadian skater cross the Atlantic ocean. Charles Gorman of St. John made the trip to Chamonix in 1924, with a 7th place in the 500 m as his best achievement, which he copied in St. Moritz 1928. Gorman was North American Outdoor Champion in 1924 and 1927, the last male Canadian to achieve this until 1977. Then, Gladys Robinson’s brother Ross set a 3 mile world record in 1930. And of course, the Canadian skaters were very successful in the packstyle games in Lake Placid 1932, Alex Hurd of Hamilton, Ontario, Bill Logan of St. John and Frank Stack of Winnipeg all winning medals. Stack was quite a character. He had a long and remarkable career, culminating at the OG in St Moritx 1948 with a 6th place in the 500 m as a 42 year old. Hurd skated 500 m backwards in 55.3 at Jevnaker 1934, a world record that survived for 74 years.

But interest in puckless skating was dwindling and so were the funds. Outdoor ovals were closing down and no team was sent to the games in 1936. The level of skating fell dramatically, but Betty Mitchell of Winnipeg held good standards in the late 40s and won three North American championships. Gordon Audley, also of Winnipeg, won a surprise bronze medal in the 500 m at the 1952 Olympic games, and Doreen McLeod Ryan of Edmonton had a long career, winning the North American championship in 1952 and finishing fairly high in the first women’s Olympic races in 1960 and ’64. A record of its kind was set by Ralph Olin from Calgary, who took part in 4 consecutive Olympic games from 1952.

This faded speedskating power struck the skating world with dismay and disbelief in 1962, when an Australian cyclist who had married into a Canadian citizenship came to Norway to try some skating and after a few weeks of training clocked a 3000 m in 4.37.2, 3 seconds below the world record. And adding insult to injury it was rumoured that he did the race in his wife’s panties, having borrowed them after an accident while ironing his skating suit the day before... Had skating finally gone to the dogs, then? Here was Wazulek, Stiepl, Seyffarth and Pajor all over again, and squared.

But as it happened, these panties were made of nylon, the first artificial textile actually worn in skating. Probably the incident inspired the famous breakthrough of the nylon suits the following year. His race at once made Enock one of the favourites for the world championship, but a cold stopped him there, and later that year, he had a car accident that killed his wife and left him seriously injured. He came back in 1965 and skated a good world championship with a 13th place overall and two 8ths in the long distances, but later descended down the lists.

1962 also was the first year of the Canadian metric style championships. The official packstyle ones were abandoned after 1968. Speedskating was adjusting from a public sport to a mainly Olympic sport. In order to train medal candidates, outdoor rinks were being held open in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Calgary, and with more experience in self-paced racing, the level began to build up again in the early 70s, with forerunners like Robert Boucher of Winnipeg (39.9 in the 500 m 1968), Robert Hodges of Saskatoon, Kevin Sirois of Red Deer and Andrew Barron of Calgary. Silvia Burka of Winnipeg had skated well in the Sapporo Olympic Games 1972, and in ’73 went on to win the junior world championship and finish 4th in the World Championship Sprint, while Gerard Cassan won the 500 m in the Junior World Championship 1974 along with some good achievements also in the senior championships that season.

In 1974, the Dutch former top skater Jorrit Jorritsma was appointed as the federation’s first full time coach, and one of his first decisions was to include a barely 16 year old shorttracker in his team. This fledgeling made his debut in place of the more qualified Barron at the 1975 World Championship at Bislett, and in a completely unremarkable fashion. His name was Gaetan Boucher. Later that year, Cathy Priestner of Calgary won the bronze in the Sprint World Championship and finished 5th in the World Championship allround. One year later, she won the Olympic silver in the 500 m, Burka won the World Championship allround and Elizabeth Appleby of Winnipeg the Junior World Championship, where Boucher finished 4th among the men, later winning his first senior medal in the 500 m at the World Championship allround. It seemed Canada suddenly had a wealth of world class speedskaters to choose from.

Burka continued her success with a World Championship Sprint title in 1977, and could have won the allround as well without a disastrous fall in the 3000 m. Boucher was second behind Heiden in the 1979 and ’80 sprint championships, and on schedule to be his successor, but lost the 1981 championship due to a fall and the 1982 one due to a poor first 1000 meter. However, he finished 9th in the allround championship in ’82, the first Canadian to receive allround honours since Paul Enock, and the best Canadian allround achievement since McCulloch. After a poor 1983 season, he returned in 1984 better than ever, securing not only the expected 1000 m Olympic gold but the 1500 m as well. And in the Sprint World Championship, where he again spoiled his first 1000 m, he outwitted his opponent in the last for one of the most thrilling races in history. These achievements brought him the speedskating Oscar for that year, the first Canadian to win this award. He half-retired in 1985 after yet another silver behind the new Soviet sprint wonder Zhelezovski, keeping it up in somewhat reduced shape until the Calgary Olympic games 1988.

Gaetan Boucher was one of the most elegant speedskaters of his time, if not ever, and inspired many French-Canadians to take up skating, especially after the first useful Canadian artificial track was opened in his home town Ste. Foy in 1978. Jean Pichette and Benoit Lamarche in allround and Jacques and Guy Thibault in sprint, all from Quebec City, made strong bids to reach the top, heralded by the Olympic beacon from the upcoming home games in Calgary. Pichette won two junior worlds medals, and Lamarche was the third post-war Canadian to complete a senior allround championship with his 9th place in 1987. The Calgary games were without any considerable success for the home team, but in the Medeo World Championship after the games, Pichette finished 5th with 2 bronze medals in the distances, and was actually in contention for the title until the 10000 m.

After 1988, Canada suffered something of a post-Olympic trauma, most of the top skaters disappearing or dropping down the lists. Skating was moving indoors, not only in Calgary, but in the rest of the country as well, from the long track ovals into the short-track rinks, a trend that was particularly strong in the Quebec region, which produced few LT skaters from then on, and many great ST ones. But Shelly Rhead of Saskatoon maintained a decent level in women's sprint, and was soon joined by talents like Susan Auch of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Catriona LeMay of Saskatoon, Kevin Scott of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Sean Ireland of Mississauga, Ontario and Neal Marshall of Victoria, British Colombia, climbing gradually from modest positions to world record level with the excellent training facilities they had in Calgary.

Since 1994, Canadian speedskating has strengtened by degrees, and today we can say that the Canadians are back where they left off a hundred years ago, on top. Today they are the only real rivals of the Dutch. They have won 2 world championships allround, 14 Olympic medals, four of them in gold, 13 distance world championships, and dozens of world records. They won every male sprint world championship 1999-2003, 1 through Mike Ireland, Sean's brother, in 2001 and the 4 others through the new super sprinter Jeremy Wotherspoon from Red Deer, Alberta (born in Humboldt, Sasakatchewan), who’s still in the hunt for Zhelezovski’s record of 6 championships. In the single distance championships they have gold medals every year since 1998 except 2000, the 13 wins being achieved by 7 different skaters, Catriona LeMay Doan, Sylvain Bouchard of Loretteville, Quebec, Jeremy Wotherspoon, Clara Hughes, a converted Olympic cycling medallist, and Cindy Klassen, both from Winnipeg, Kristina Groves from Ottawa, and Denny Morrison from Fort St. John.

LeMay-Doan was the second woman after Bonnie Blair to defend an Olympic title in the 500 m, and she also won the sprint world championships both Olympic seasons. From 1995 to 2002, Canada was represented every year in the men’s allround finals, culminating with Dustin Molicki's 5th places overall the last two seasons. After three more barren years, they have been present the last three years again, with another 5th place by Morrison at home ice in 2006 as their best. The female allrounders have been sharper than ever under their Chinese coach Wang Xiuli, fighting the Dutch for the female hegemony after the downfall of the formerly invincible Germans. After Burka’s last top achievement in 1980 the Canadian women only sporadically appeared in the final distances the next years, and always in lowly positions. But then Cindy Klassen from Winnipeg, who made her first achievement of note by winning the 1000 m at the junior world championship in Geithus 1999, climbed to 4th place in 2001, further to a silver the next year and finally was crowned allround world champion 2003. Klassen repeated this feat in 2006 in very grand style on home ice, and teammates Groves, Hughes, and Christine Nesbitt of London, Ontario (born in Melbourne, Australia), have ensured a high Canadian density in the upper reaches of the results lists the last few years.

The Olympic Oval in Calgary is an essential asset to Canadian speedskating. It’s the fastest rink in the world today and has a majority of the world records. Here the Canadian skaters have top conditions for training almost all year around. And it’s no surprise that they, too, have a majority of the world records. Calgary is today’s Mecca of speedskating. Foreign skaters flock to exploit its facilities and the record-fast ice. Fans dream of attending meets there. Thanks to The Oval, Canadian speedskaters can look forward to the Vancouver games 2010 with confidence.

Still, speedskating in Canada isn’t a great public sport. The top events in Calgary, World Cups and World Championships, are well attended by the public, but most other events are sparsely spectated. Speedskating does not figure hugely in the national media and the skaters don’ have masses of fans. There are only a handful of ovals across the country with any activity to speak of. Speedskating still is mainly an Olympic sport. Times will tell if the upcoming games in Vancouver will be able to effect any change in that.

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Statistics (Oct. 2008):

Canadian records:

Mark Nielsen 9.45 Salt Lake City 10 Jan 2003
Jeremy Wotherspoon 34.03 Salt Lake City 9 Nov 2007 (WR)
Jeremy Wotherspoon 1.07.03 Salt Lake City 11 Nov 2007
Denny Morrison 1.42.01 Calgary 14 Mar 2008 (WR)
Arne Dankers 3.41.96 Calgary 29 Oct 2005
Arne Dankers 6.14.01 Salt Lake City 19 Nov 2005
Arne Dankers 13.10.58 Heerenveen 4 Des 2005
Jeremy Wotherspoon 137.230 Calgary 18-19 Jan 2003 (WR)
34.41 - 1.08.41 - 34.49 - 1.08.25
Philippe Riopel 148.210 Calgary 12-14 Mar 2008
35.34 - 3.46.34 - 1.46.71 - 6.35.77
Lucas Makowsky 150.057 Calgary 12-14 Mar 2008
36.23 - 6.25.71 - 1.45.78 - 13.21.93

Catriona LeMay-Doan 10.33 Salt Lake City 10 Jan 2003
Catriona LeMay-Doan 37.22 Calgary 9 Des 2001
Cindy Klassen 1.13.11 Calgary 25 Mar 2006 (WR)
Cindy Klassen 1.51.79 Calgary 20 Nov 2005 (WR)
Cindy Klassen 3.53.34 Calgary 18 Mar 2006 (WR)
Cindy Klassen 6.48.97 Calgary 19 Mar 2006
Cindy Klassen 149.305 Calgary 24-25 Mar 2006 (equals WR)
38.18 - 1.13.46 - 37.84 - 1.13.11
Christine Nesbitt 153.856 Salt Lake City 9-11 Nov 2007 (WR)
38.41 - 1.52.75 - 1.13.92 - 4.05.42
Cindy Klassen 154.580 Calgary 18-19 Mar 2006 (WR)
37.51 - 3.53.34 - 1.51.85 - 6.48.97

World championships allround: 4
World champions allround: 3
Sprint world championships: 9
Sprint world champions: 5
World championships single distances: 13
World champions single distances: 7
Male overall championships: 7
Male overall champions: 4
Female overall championships: 6
Female overall champions: 3
Male allround championships: 1
Male allround champions: 1
Female allround championships:3
Female allround champions: 2
Total championships: 26
Total champions: 11: McCulloch, Burka, Boucher, LeMay-Doan, Bouchard, Wotherspoon, Ireland, Klassen, Hughes, Groves, Morrison.

Canadian distance winners in international championships:

1.Jeremy Wotherspoon 18; 14 in SWC and 4 in WSD
2.Catriona LeMay-Doan 12; 9 in SWC and 3 in WSD
3.Gaetan Boucher 6; 2 in WCh and 4 in SWC
Cindy Klassen 6; 4 in WCh and 2 in WSD
5.Jack McCulloch 3 in WCh
Sylvia Burka 3; 1 in WCh and 2 in SWC
7.Clara Hughes 2; 1 in WCh and 1 in WSD
Denny Morrison 2; 1 in WCh, 1 in WSD
9.Cathy Priestner 1 in the 500m, SWC Gothenburg 1975 (43.44)
Kevin Scott 1 in the 1000m, SWC Calgary 1994 (1.12.69)
Sylvain Bouchard 1 in the 1000m, WSD Calgary 1998 (1.09.60)
Christine Nesbitt 1 in the 500m, WCh Berlin 2008 (39.03)
Kristina Groves 1 in the 3000m, WSD Nagano 2008 (4.05.03)

Thus 13 distance winners in all, and they have won 57 distances, 6 in the male World Championship (3 in the 500, 1 in each of the 1500, 5000 and 10000 m), 7 in the World Championship for women (2 500m, 2 1500m, 1 3000m and 2 5000m), 19 in the Sprint World Championship for men (11 in the 500, 8 in the 1000m), 12 in the Sprint World Championship for women (10 in the 500 and 2 in the 1000m), and 13 in the World Championship Single Distances - 6 for men (3 in the 500m, 2 in the 1000m, and 1 in the 1500m) and 7 for women (3 in the 500m, 1 in the 1500m, 2 in the 3000m, and 1 in the 5000 m).

Canadian top 6 achievements in the Olympic Games:

500m men14222
1000m men1132
1500m men1111
5000m men11
10000m men1
Overall, men
Total, men237364
500m women232
1000m women11111
1500m women121
3000m women2
5000m women1211
Total, women455314

Representation of Canadian skaters in international senior championships and Olympic games:

1.Gaetan Boucher 24 times
Catriona LeMay-Doan 24
Jeremy Wotherspoon 24
4.Sylvia Burka 23
Michael Ireland 23
6.Susan Auch 22
7.Kristina Groves 21
Steven Elm 21
9.Cindy Klassen 19
10.Kevin Marshall 15
11.Neal Marshall 13
Patrick Bouchard 13
Clara Hughes 13
14.Sylvie Daigle 12
Natalie Grenier 12
Shannon Rempel 12
17.Krisy Myers 11
18.Jacques Thibault 10
Ariane Loignon 10
Michelle Morton 10
Cindy Overland 10
Mark Knoll 10
Arne Dankers 10
24.Guy Thibault 9
Kevin Scott 9
Sylvain Bouchard 9
Kevin Overland-Crockett 9
Jason Parker 9
29.Gayle Gordon 8
Kathy Vogt 8
Shelley Rhead 8
Ingrid Liepa 8
Kim Weger 8
Denny Morrison 8
35.Robert Hodges 7
Cathy Priestner 7
Brenda Webster 7
Benoit Lamarche 7
Linda Johnson-Blair 7
Dustin Molicki 7
Brock Miron 7
Christine Nesbitt 7
43.Doreen McCannel 6
Pat Durnin 6
Jean Pichette 6
Chantal Coté 6
Pat Kelly 6
Kerry Simpson 6
Justin Warszylewicz 6
49.Ralph Olin 5
Paul Enock 5
Kevin Sirois 5
Gerard Cassan 5
John Cassidy 5
Anne Girard 5
Robert Dubreuil 5
Nicole Slot 5
Tara Risling 5
James Monson 5
59.Gordon Audley 4
Jennifer Jackson 4
Elizabeth Appleby 4
Tom Overend 4
Craig Webster 4
Daniel Turcotte 4
Sean Ireland 4
Isabelle Douchet 4
68.Frank Stack 3
Craig Mackay 3
Doreen Ryan 3
Frank Ludtke 3
Andrew Barron 3
Nathalie Lambert 3
Caroline Maheux 3
Susan Stewart-Massitti 3
Jean-René Belanger 3
Vincent Labrie 3
François-Olivier Roberge 3
79.Charles Gorman 2
William Logan 2
Alexander Hurd 2
Harry Smyth 2
Pat Underhill 2
John Sands 2
Wendy Thompson 2
Marcia Parsons 2
Cheryl Rey 2
Gordon Goplen 2
Gregor Jelonek 2
Michael Hall 2
Sylvie Cantin 2
Eric Brisson 2
Jay Morrison 2
Philippe Marois 2
Brittany Schussler 2
95.Jack K McCulloch 1
John Davidson 1
C E Greene 1
Tom Moore 1
W H Merritt 1
Albert E Pilkie 1
A Lee 1
Ross Robinson 1
Leopold Sylvestre 1
Herb Flack 1
Marion McCarthy 1
Hattie Donaldson-Briggs 1
Gladys Ferguson 1
Thomas White 1
Abraham Hardy 1
Betty Mitchell 1
Lawrence Mason 1
Margaret Robb 1
Joanne Fath 1
Robert Boucher 1
Peter Williamson 1
Judy Dietiker 1
Darryl Smith 1
Gary Goplen 1
Don Bumstead 1
Cheryl Prendergast 1
Denis Gagnon 1
Marie-Pierre Lamarche 1
Kathy Gordon 1
Robert Tremblay 1
Marcel Tremblay 1
Cameron Mackay 1
Leah Nattrass 1
Jamie Ivey 1
Michelle d’Amours 1
Danielle Wotherspoon 1
Tamara Oudenaarden 1
Lucas Makowsky 1 (altogether 132)