I remember it as if it happened yesterday: the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Our entire team was in the Hockey Canada family and friends room, loud with chatter as we all took time to visit the people that meant so much to us.
Then, all of a sudden, the room fell silent.
The TV’s were all on, and Jeremy Wotherspoon was just about to race the 500m. It seemed everyone knew that he was the man – likely the best athlete the Olympic team had in any sport. Expected to win speed skating gold and based on his talents and work ethic it was bound to happen.
There was no denying the anticipation in the room – total silence.
Then, in unison, a gasp. The moment that was supposed to be so wonderful turned to utter disappointment.
Wotherspoon had fallen right after the gun went off.
What we all felt at that moment, however, was nothing compared to what Wotherspoon was going through: Imagine being the best at something, without a doubt, and yet at the moment you wanted to prove that, it was gone.
I have always been a huge fan of Jeremy Wotherspoon. Probably because on many occasions at the Olympic Oval in Calgary I got to see his skating talents first-hand and the work ethic that went along with it. He was also just a genuine, down to earth, and shy guy who was one of the greatest athletes this country has ever seen, yet never seemed too good to stop for a chat.
He has had this idea of a comeback to speed skating and attempt to make the Sochi Olympic team for quite some time, and even retiring shortly after 2010, could never see himself as anything but a speed skater.
His accomplishments on the ice are astounding, but it’s been the Olympic disappointments that keep his fire burning. In 1998 it was a loss to Japanese skater Hiroyasu Shimizu, finishing with a silver in the 500m. In 2002 it was that unlucky fall that seemed to happen in an instant when the gun went off. In 2006 he simply tried to be too perfect making up for 2002. In 2010 injuries forced him to not be at his best as he basically had no races for a year out of the Games due to a broken arm.
Like any normal Olympian he wishes he was “better at the Olympics”.
LEADERSHIP IN EXPERIENCE
If his sport, unlike hockey, was covered by the media year-round, and not just once every four years, it’s likely the general public would know just how amazing of an athlete Wotherspoon really is — and how often he should be celebrated.
Our country is lucky for how he has made many people around him better.
Coaching in Europe during retirement has helped him see things that he never saw before. It was coaching that gave him a new outlook on the happenings of his career. At a time when many people in Canadian sport thought we were, yet again, losing a great athlete to another country and hurting our own development, the experience was a great thing for Wotherspoon.
At the urging of a good friend and his employer in Germany Marnix Wieberdink, Wotherspoon has joined the Kia Speed Skating Academy in that country. It’s a team skaters join when they don’t have ideal situations, and a program trying to develop the sport of speed skating by bringing more athletes into World Cups from different countries.
To make ‘the comeback’ he needed a team.
Through all of this he has become a father. Daughter Ella has taught him to be more patient, no matter if it’s a good or bad day to bring your best. And this is something he has applied to his daily training routine. Through all the disappointments he has learned to accept things when they are done and, more importantly, he now knows that he has to learn from these experiences in order to move on.
So what will be different this time around?
Wotherspoon has documented his plan in a journal as usual, but for the first time he will have a high level of responsibility creating the training plan, something he has never done before. He is making many of his own sport decisions — which never happened before. He will be more mindful of the energy he expends and make sure he is not too over-involved in the daily processes.
Wotherspoon didn’t qualify for the Canadian World Cup team, so there will be fewer races to compete in, but this will allow him to focus more on his training. There will be no carding to help with travel and expenses as he moves closer to Olympic trials in December.
For the best male speed skater in World Cup history, there is one more thing that might be different too: he just might be amazing enough to come back qualify for the 2014 Games in Sochi and who knows? Maybe he could win that elusive Olympic gold.