By the time he steps on the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi for his third Olympic Winter Games in February, Charles Hamelin will have been competing against – and often beating – the world’s best for a decade.
And Canada’s king of short track is still on pace.
Racing three times over each of the three individual distances (500m, 1000m, 1500m) in a span of 12 days at the recent Speed Skating Canada selection trials in Montreal, Hamelin delivered eight-straight wins.
“I could not dream of that (consistency) so it’s really fun to see that I was able to do everything I wanted to do on the ice,” said Hamelin. “It’s difficult to be performing at the same level for that long and I was able to … I think it’s a good sign for Sochi.”
A good sign indeed, from this veteran, champion and leader.
If a team is lucky, it will have different athletes to fill each of those roles vital to success. But for the Canadian short track crew, it’s the pride of Sainte-Julie, Quebec, who characterizes all three.
VETERAN – THE TEAM CONSTANT
On paper, Hamelin has little left to prove.
He won the first of his 16 individual world championship medals in 2005. He is a two-time world champion of the 500m. He has been part of five world champion relay teams.
He was the youngest member of the Canadian men’s short track team at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin. Just 21 years old, he returned home with a silver medal from the 5000m relay after just missing the podium with a fourth place finish in the 1500m.
Four years later he was the ace of the squad in Vancouver, winning two gold medals just a half hour apart. His individual victory in the 500m followed by his contribution to the 5000m relay triumph made him the only Canadian double gold medallist of the home Games.
Like any champion, however, he has a perpetual hunger for more.
CHAMPION – ALWAYS AIMING FOR THE TOP
Hamelin is hardly alone in the annals of Canadian short track success. With 25 medals since the sport made its official Olympic debut at Albertville 1992, Canada is second only to South Korea. So it should be no surprise that this country’s two most decorated male winter Olympians are both short track speed skaters, Marc Gagnon and François-Louis Tremblay, each with five medals.
But Hamelin could match or even surpass their total in Sochi.
Indeed, it may have only been Hamelin’s inability to race in the last 1000m final due to an ankle injury kept him from going nine for nine at the team trials. Luckily there was no fracture and he’ll be ready for Russia.
But it is that drive to compete, even with his spot on the team already secure, that inspires those around him.
LEADER – KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
“I’m very happy to see how good he’s doing,” said Olivier Jean, who won gold in the 5000m relay alongside Hamelin at Vancouver 2010. “He’s in fantastic shape right now. He’s a great leader in training so everyone’s going to improve with him.”
Jean, just like Hamelin, will be 29 at Sochi 2014 and is also respected as a team leader for his positive and professional attitude. But while Jean is the more vocal of the two, teammates point to Hamelin’s quiet influence.
“He’s pretty calm in training,” says Charle Cournoyer, who just competed at his first world championships in 2013. “He’s the kind of guy who’s always leading and it’s something I really watch from below and something I want to do.”
Cournoyer, set to be an Olympic rookie in Sochi at age 22, had an impressive performance at the trials, finishing among the top-three men with Hamelin and Jean after posting five second-place finishes.
“In the last two years I watched him a lot and that helped me to reach the point where I might go to the Olympics now.”
Just as Hamelin looked up to Gagnon, he knows the younger generation is looking to him.
“It’s really fun to see because I will not be there forever,” Hamelin laughs. “We need some guys to be there when I retire and I’m really happy that those guys are there.”
With the entire men’s national team training together in Montreal, Hamelin’s influence can be felt on a daily basis, but he also admits that the atmosphere encourages him.
“We are one big family and we always want to make everyone better, so you want to push yourself at your limit. It’s just fun to be part of that group and that’s why I’m still able to be that good at 29 years old.”
The Hamelin Effect is not just limited to the men.
Girlfriend, teammate and fellow Olympic medallist Marianne St-Gelais has no doubt that her performances are helped just by having Hamelin around.
“When I have a rush of stress or I’m not confident enough, Charles is there to say ‘Hey Marianne, don’t rush, it’s okay, you’re going to be fine, you know how to do it.’ That’s why I love him. I love his personality and also he’s such a good skater and I’m still learning from him.”
ROAD TO SOCHI
With the internal team selection process now complete, the focus for the Canadian short track team turns to officially qualifying for Sochi 2014. For Hamelin, there’s no better preparation than competing against his teammates.
“Racing in Canada is really hard, sometimes harder than in the World Cups, so I will go there with a lot of confidence. And when you have the confidence like that it makes your races just a little bit easier and sometimes what you need to get the gold.”
The World Cup season will kick off in Asia, with stops in Shanghai, China (September 26-29) and Seoul, South Korea (October 3-6), before the circuit shifts to Europe for the Olympic qualification events in Turin, Italy (November 7-10) and Kolomna, Russia (November 14-17). Results at those final two World Cups will determine the number of Olympic entries for each country.
Canada is aiming to qualify a full team of five men and five women. Those names will be officially announced on August 29.