By GRANT ROBERTSON
Friday, February 9, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA -- Sometimes, it's the little things that make or break an Olympic performance - minute details that can be the difference between winning a medal or being left off the podium entirely.
At the speed-skating oval in Pyeongchang this week, that attention to detail has reached peculiar new heights.
Tai chi sessions, golf-ball technology and motorized scooters.
For a sport that usually seems pretty straightforward by the standards of the Winter Games, long-track speed skating is suddenly looking very unorthodox.
The U.S. team has arrived in South Korea with a personal tai chi instructor, no doubt hoping to instill a more Zen-like approach after bitterly failing to win a single medal four years ago in Sochi. Meanwhile, the Canadians are wrapping themselves in high-tech skin suits that Sherbrooke-born sprinter Alex Boisvert-Lacroix describes as having a pattern like the dimples on a golf ball to slice through the wind.
And then there is Vincent De Haître's motorized scooter: The speed skater from Ottawa has been zipping around the athlete's village on a foldable twowheel scooter, which he carted to South Korea as his carry-on, cramming it into the plane's overhead compartment in the hopes it will give him an edge when he steps on the ice.
The goal, he says, is to cut down on the amount of unnecessary walking he'll do over the next few weeks, which sounds odd at first, given that speed skaters are extremely fit. But the Olympics are a sprawling event, with a lot of unexpected running around; not only do athletes have to spend a lot of time on their feet, but the venues themselves are gargantuan. Just getting from his room to the breakfast table and back at the athletes' village adds up to a lot of unwanted mileage and a lot of phantom wear and tear on his legs.
Traversing the Sochi Olympics every day took an unexpected toll, De Haître said. So this time, with a serious shot at a medal in the 1,000-metre and 1,500-metre events, he's leaving nothing to chance.
"I got that electric scooter, so I don't have to walk to get food every day," he said. "After Sochi, I got shin splints and that was a problem for like a year and a half afterward. I knew that walking isn't good for me and it's bad for my back, so just two weeks before getting here, I said, 'I'm getting a scooter, I'm not going to walk 2.5 extra kilometres a day that I'm not used to doing.' " While some people might cast sideways glances, after training four years for this moment, he's not about to let anything thing slow him down.
To say that speed skaters are detail-oriented people would be an understatement. Everything from the ice to their blades and the skin suits they don are worthy of fixation. Boisvert-Lacroix said Canada's suits in South Korea, which they've been wearing all season, are the fastest he's ever seen.
When asked what they're made of, he shrugs. But whatever it is, several of the Canadians have been notching their fastest times while wearing it.
"No clue," he said. "Really expensive material for the arms and the legs. Even our backup skin suit doesn't have that material, because it's so expensive.
So we are the only country that has that technology."
Teams are known to talk up their suits in advance of the Olympics as an intimidation tactic of sorts, but Boisvert-Lacroix says his faith in the new uniform is genuine.
"I trust it," he adds. "Because I've never skated as fast in my life as this year. And other guys, too. It's fast."
A bad suit can be disastrous, as the United States discovered in Sochi. They showed up in 2014 with material that proved too rigid and suits that were too tight. It wasn't the sole reason the U.S. team failed to win a medal in Sochi, but the skin suits - and their manufacturer, Under Armour - took a lot of the blame.
"First off, it was super tight," U.S. speed skater Mitch Whitmore told reporters this week, remembering the flawed uniforms. "Second, we only put it on like two weeks before the races started. It was really heavy, it just didn't stretch at all, also the vent on the back wasn't great."
Under Armour gets a do-over on the uniforms this year and the U.S. athletes seems happier, including Whitmore, who finished a dismal 27th in the 500m race in Sochi. "We've changed all of that. Our suit is really light, it stretches, it fits awesome, it looks cool," he said.
But the lower stress levels among the U.S. skaters may also be the result of the tai chi consultant the country has brought in for Pyeongchang to help them wind down after training.
"Most of it is stuff that we already think about, but he's a good instructor for mindfulness and just tai chi in general, going through the movements and loosening up our bodies," Whitmore said.
Other details have suddenly become critical at these Olympics, such as a hyper focus on hand washing and hygiene, amid continuing worries of a norovirus outbreak in Pyeongchang that has led to dozens of security staff being quarantined to prevent the bug from spreading.
On the ice, another detail could play a crucial role for the Canadians - the surface itself.
The ice at the Gangneung Oval is overseen by Canadian ice maker Mark Messer, who works out of Calgary's Olympic Oval and has created the ice at several other Winter Games.
Canada's skaters insist that when they step on the ice in Pyeongchang, it actually feels like home. Denny Morrison, racing in his fourth Olympics, said there is a nuance to Messer's ice that is palpable. Although the ice won't be as fast as Calgary, where the city's higher altitude gives the skaters more glide, the surface in Pyeongchang is as good as it gets for an oval that is just 26 metres above sea level.
"The ice feels really familiar, like it would at home," Morrison said. "That top layer of the ice has a similar feel to Calgary."
Can a speed skater really recognize ice the way a sommelier might identify a wine with just a sip?
"Yeah, for sure," Morrison said. "It's ridiculous how much every speed skater knows about ice-making and the weather and the pressure, humidity and temperature of the air - all of these things that go into it."
For De Haître, it's about the way the ice looks and sounds.
"It's thin and it's glossy. Glossy ice is fast. And Calgary is like that on its good days," he said.
"At the end of your pushes, you hear that sound - whoosh - it's a distinctive sound, with power."
Its details such as those, as small as they are, the skaters insist could really matter.
"I would definitely describe this as home ice advantage," De Haître said.
Members of the Canadian speed skating team take a training run at the Gangneung Oval in Gangneung, South Korea, on Wednesday.