Speed Skaters Embark on Huge World Cup Season

This weekend marks the first of five crucial World Cups for Canada’s national speed skating team. The event in Berlin starting Friday launches the 2009-2010 season, one that will have a direct impact on Canada’s medal hopes at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

In 2006, eight of Canada’s 24 medals came in long track speed skating. This was a record for most medals won in a single sport for Canada.

Results from five World Cups this month and next will be used to determine Olympic quotas for the various countries competing. As Host Country, Canada receives one quota for every speed skating event. But as Canada has deep talent in the sport, it can qualify several skaters per event. The more quotas per event means the more medal possibilities in 2010. The goal of leading the overall medal count next February may rely in part on results from these World Cups.

At the moment, four skaters have pre-qualified for Olympic berths (though each must finish in the top-six in a World Cup this season to secure their spot):

Denny Morrison (Fort St. John, B.C.): 1,000 and 1,500 metres

Christine Nesbitt (London, Ont.): 1,000 and 1,500 metres

Kristina Groves (Ottawa): 3,000 metres

Clara Hughes (Winnipeg): 5,000 metres

After the first three World Cups, Speed Skating Canada will reassess the team for optimal Olympic possibilities. Any skater can opt out of a World Cup if he or she chooses, which could open up a slot for another skater who hasn’t yet won an Olympic quota to try and take a run at one.

Canada is strongest in middle distance races, particularly on the ladies side. It is arguably a world leader in middle distance, heading a group that includes the United States, the Netherlands, South Korea and Norway. Japan and China are notably strong in the shorter sprint races.

One interesting storyline for Canada is the return of Winnipeg’s Cindy Klassen. She won a Canadian record five Olympic medals in 2006, but has not raced in close to 20 months. She was forced to take all of last season off and undergo double knee surgery. Will the powerful skater recapture her brilliance on the long track?

Also, keep watch for two World Cups in Calgary (Dec. 4-6) and Salt Lake City (Dec. 11-13), which could feature new world records. Both tracks are considered the fastest in the world, and skaters will be going full tilt for those Olympic quotas.

The final Canadian Olympic selection trials run Dec. 27 to Jan. 2 in Calgary to fill out any remaining berths.

For a look at the full 2009 national speed skating team, click here: www.speedskating.ca/client/cmsUploads/speed_skating/File/Media/MG0910_Long_Track.pdf