Short track speed skating has given Charles Hamelin and Marianne St-Gelais so much, including one another.
And they have given back.
Engaged and engaging, they have been the happy faces of their sport in this country for more than a decade. Together, the Canadian national-team stalwarts own seven Olympic medals, and 38 from world championships.
Together, they will call it a career in 2018.
“It’s not like we want to stop skating to start a family,” said St-Gelais, 27. “But there are some little things in our life that are calling us. A family is one of them.
“Also, my family, the people around me. It’s been so many years of skating, it’s hard for us to have a Christmas. We have two days at Christmas. It seems weird to say that, but when it’s been 17 years that you don’t celebrate Christmas — at the beginning, it’s OK, but I’m getting older. I want some family time.
“It’s OK to move on. I’m ready to move on. I just feel it’s the right place and the right moment. Things are going well for us and things will be fine after, for sure.”
Together with Hamelin’s brother Francois, they plan to engage the youth of Quebec in their sport through training camps. Hamelin and five business partners are already running Nagano Skate, which specializes in providing equipment and expertise. He will become more involved in its daily activities. One day, he will coach.
But first, one last Olympics. And before that, one last Olympic trials, a 10-day test of endurance that began Saturday in Montreal. The power couple, who started dating in 2007, will be favoured to clinch spots on the 10-member team, but they aren’t booking flights to Pyeongchang yet.
“This one will be for sure the toughest selections of my career,” said Hamelin, 33. “The men’s field has gotten a lot stronger. In times and form, I’m at the best of my life. So that’s not something I am worried about. It’s more the racing with all the other boys because they are also really, really good and in shape right now. So for me, it will be crucial to be really intelligent in my races.”
St-Gelais, who calls skating her “purpose,” has had to adjust her thinking on the eve of the trials. Each skater competes in three races at each of three distances: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 metres. The top two finishes for each skater at two of those distances will decide who makes the team on points. There are also discretionary picks by the coaches and high performance committee.
“When I first figured my objective, I was like, yeah, I think I can go for winning every distance, every race,” said St-Gelais. “I don’t feel like it’s impossible right now. I just don’t want to feel mad if it’s not happening. Yes, the trials are really important, but I just have to qualify. Winning comes after.
“So I was maybe too intense. I still want to go for it, winning every race. But if it’s not happening and if I’m top three, I will be happy and I want to be happy with that.”
They can both be happy with the way they have conducted themselves as role models for the up-and-comers. With their bodies of work. With their dedication to the sport.
“Charles has been at the front of high performance in our program for probably 12 years now,” said Derrick Campbell, men’s team head coach. “And certainly, with who he is, his values and work ethic, how he leads by example, that’s been a tremendous asset.”
Hamelin said Olympic gold in the 1,500 in Sochi stands out because of the flak Canada was taking for not being able to compete at that distance. But there are many high points.
“When I started to be on the national team, I never thought I would have that career in my life. Being almost at the end of it, when I look back I’m really, really proud of it.”
Proud, too, of St-Gelais.
“She came back so strong after the Sochi Olympics, which were so disappointing for her. She came back from that moment and has been able to win again.”
Women’s team head coach Frédéric Blackburn said it happened because St-Gelais, held off the podium but for relay silver in 2014, has been focused every day since on becoming a better skater.
“Marianne is a tactical warrior. She doesn’t like to lose, but if she loses, she will be disappointed, and then she will see (the reasons) for it. Right now, she is top level in her sport and she knows what she needs to do.”
And what she wants to do, which is to put a cap on a fine career.
It’s one thing to fight a South Korean skater for every centimetre of ice at a World Cup, but quite another when the man or woman in front of you is a potential Olympic teammate.
So Canada’s short track speed skaters have pledged not to take unnecessary risks that could cost someone else a trip to Pyeongchang in 2018. Hamelin said he is literally willing to make room for teammates on the Olympic squad during trials in Montreal this month.
“In my mind, I have some people I want on the team with me, if I qualify,” he said. “I would prefer to let someone win so he can have more points, rather than have me DQ’d on him and him lose points because he will finish second-last because I bumped him. So I would prefer to finish second in that race.”
Sixteen men and 16 women will compete three times apiece in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 metres during the 10-day trials. The skaters’ top two finishes in two distances will count for selection points, and the standings will decide most members of a provisional Olympic team. There will also be discretionary picks made by the coaching staff and high performance committee.