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Even Sprinters can work through a slow and steady process

Practice, practice and more practice.

Maybe when all is said and done, the hard working young athletes who gather for Sudbury Sprinters' workouts twice a week will be able to out-skate the COVID-19 virus.

After all, these kids are built for speed.

"I like the fact that we're not competing in the sense that it gives us a whole lot more opportunity to really focus in and find things that we can improve upon as a whole," said J.J. Therrien, now in his sixth year of coaching, but first as head coach of the local speed skating club.

"A lot of our younger skaters are just on the cusp of being able to do crossovers, so we've been pushing that, taking advantage of the fact that we are not competing."

Henry Walker is well beyond that initial introductory stage.

A grade six student at MacLeod Public School, the 11 year-old has been a member of the Sprinters for the past four years, turning his attention to the finer details of his sport these days. "I'm working a lot on straightaways, getting my feet moving a little bit slower but pushing father with my stride," he said.

"And with my crossovers, I'm trying to get them a little less chop, chop, chop, and a little more smooth - and leaning is a big thing on the corners. If you're going fast enough, like Olympic fast, you can touch the ice when you lean in the corners. We're not allowed to do that here, we don't go fast enough."

"For our corners here, we are probably two or three feet away from the ice, just so that we have a good lean going."

From the day he strapped on the skates, Walker has felt at home on the ice.

"I remember doing Can Skate and I moved up three levels in one week," he said. "The first day that I was there, they were teaching us to push, and I did it really well, so they moved me up to the second level. A week later, I got moved to the final level."

Certainly the thought of playing hockey crossed his mind, his father (Bradley) a very well-established senior official in the sport locally. But like so many kids, all it would take is one bad experience, way back in his youth, and this one not even on the ice.

"When I was in grade two, we were playing floor hockey at school," Walker recalled. "A guy was about to do a slap shot. He brought his stick up really hard and he hit me right in the chin. It was bleeding a lot and I had a scar like forever. Since then, I really didn't want to play hockey."

All of which is just fine with the Sudbury Sprinters organization, as Walker got his first taste of racing in Barrie two years ago. "I have some endurance, but I am mainly a sprint guy," he said. "For me, I like the first position, closest to the inside. If I get that, I pretty much win. If I'm there, I can get in between the other skaters."

"I'm thin and small, so I can kind of squeeze between them."

He speaks not a word of a lie. Just one year older, teammate Olivier Tremblay towers over his practice partner. A member of the Sprinters even longer than Walker, the grade 7 student at Ecole St Denis did not segue to speed skating via any kind of traumatic incident. His motivation was far more pure and simple.

"I remember my mom asking me what I wanted to do," Tremblay recollected. "I said that I wanted to play hockey, but I really wanted to skate fast, so she told me that speed skating was an option. I love the feeling of skating really fast."

And in order to do that, proper technique, quite understandably, is the key.

"I need to stay low, in a basic position," said Tremblay. "I make sure to put my right foot at the apex and try and get the same amount of crossovers, every time I go around the corner - unless I'm accelerating. In long distance races, I will usually do two or three crossovers; but for shorter distances, 100 or 200 metres, I usually try and do four or five."

Ready to race, whenever that opportunity might come again, it's time for Tremblay to assess his strategy.

"For shorter distances, I like to be in front at the start and try and keep my place," he said. "For longer distances, I like to be second or third, so that I can draft on other people - and then, when there are a couple of laps left, I can pass them, because I'll have a lot of energy left."

Finally, one has to remember that all of the technique and strategy in the world will not necessarily pay dividends if it just isn't your day. "If I wake up in the morning and I'm really, really tired, I know that it's going to be a lot harder to make myself start," said Tremblay.

"If I wake up in the morning and have a bit more energy and I'm feeling confident, then I know that it's not going to be a terrible race."

Whether it's Walker or Tremblay or any of the other young skaters on the ice, there will also be the helpful guidance of coach Therrien on hand, taking over a position that was previously filled by his mother (Nicole). A member of the club in his youth, A.J. has taken to the role of coach far more than the role of athlete - by his own admission.

"I was the one who started the speed skating trend with our family," he said. "But Alexie (younger sister) is far more decorated than I; she was competitive and then some. I was far more lackadaisical - I liked to enjoy my time on the ice."

Interestingly enough, coach Therrien now finds himself far more fascinated with the minutia of speed skating than he was in his racing days. "Obviously, you have to look at things more technically than before as a coach," he said. "What's nice is that I can see and understand things that I was doing horribly wrong, technique-wise."

All of which kind of brings us right back to the start.

"Whether you are coming from hockey or figure skating, you don't necessarily have this set position that you are used to always skating in," explained Therrien. "You're kind of adapting, as necessary. With speed skating, the biggest struggle that everyone has initially is just the basic position, because it's such an odd feeling."

"Bending at the knees, bending at the waist, trying to make your total area of wind resistance a lot smaller - it's just not comfortable for long periods of time."

But it is something that in the chaotic season that is 2020-2021, the young skaters can focus on, fully and completely, without the worry of trying to be ready for upcoming competitions.

Practice, practice and more practice.

Palladino Subaru