With one of the smaller bases of membership in the local sports community, the Sudbury Sprinters Speedskating Club are so very happy to welcome newcomers, arguably more so than many of the more popular sports.
For that reason, among others, the fall of 2021 has been very good to the group that practices twice a week at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex.
A Try-Skate initiative introduced the sport to a handful of new families, including the Nicholls clan that now features a trio of budding skaters. Out of the blue, the Sprinters received a reach-out from Heather Lee, a twelve year veteran of the sport, the 19 year old second year Laurentian University student up for her first taste of residence life in Sudbury.
Did we mention that the Outdoor Education Leadership major from Brampton is also an accredited speedskating coach?
Throw all of this in with a core of folks who were already engaged to the point of preparing to host a provincial “B” championship just as the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and you have the makings of room for growth in a niche activity that has welcomed future Olympians to Sudbury in the past.
“All three of us are here; my mom only let’s us do the same activity in the samer area,” noted 12 year-old club newcomer Alexis Nicholls. “When we started, there was a learn to skate activity. It was kind of like a trial to see if you would like speedskating.”
Mom may have had her doubts, but a couple of months in, it’s looking like the eldest child and younger siblings William and Victoria may be here to stay. “All three of us said yes right away when my mom asked if we wanted to continue,” suggested Alexis.
“My mom didn’t think anyone was going to because we kept falling and it was a challenge - but we saw past that. It’s fun just being part of something.”
In fairness, from their time out on Clearwater Lake, the Nicholls’ trio were not completely uninitiated to the concept of skating, even if organized hockey was not in the cards. This new adventure, however, is a little different.
“We had a mix of hockey skates and figure skates before these, hand me downs and such,” said Alexis. “We didn’t need anything fancy. If you’ve done figure skating before, you will notice that the boot is normally higher, but with these (speed skates), you can roll your ankles around quite easily.”
“And these blades are really sharp for you to go fast.”
A couple of months in, newcomers are gaining a grasp of the basics, the pillars upon which the ability to compete for a good long time can be built.
“We learned the basic position first, which is where you go on your skates and you bend your legs down a little bit, to a ninety degree angle, almost like you’re sitting on a short stool,” explained Nicholls. “Today we learned cross-overs.”
“Some of the kids had very little skating background. Some of the little ones can skate around, but they fall constantly. It’s so cute.”
Cute, perhaps, to the slightly older teammates. Cute but correctable, however, to those entrusted to try and groom young skaters in these parts.
And while coach Heather Lee might not be lending her knowledge to the speedskating neophytes in her new club, the premise upon which her interest in working with the Sprinters is predicated is one shared between all those who have come before her, or those who will come after.
“I just want the kids to be able to continue skating,” said Lee, the eldest of two children in the family with the other still competing in the sport back home. “I found it to be such an important part of my life. I just want to be able to give that to others.”
The sport, with the help of the athlete, quite obviously, offered Lee some competitive opportunities along the way, moments borne of her devotion and focus to her joy on the ice, taking part in the Canada East Championships in 2017.
“I’m very good at starts; that’s the one thing I’ve been able to excel at,” said the young lady who hopes to both compete and coach this year after missing the 2019-2020 season due to injury and suffering an even more frustrating absence for her sport since then.
“I’ve never had the greatest stamina, but I’m able to get off the line right away, able to get to the pucks and lead that first corner and take it from there.”
Whether as coach or skater, Lee exudes a passion for all things speedskating.
“It’s such a tight community, especially with the girls,” she said. “There are not enough girls that we see in the sport so the girls that you do see, you end up very close with. On ice, it’s everyone for themselves, but off-ice, you become the cloest friends.”
Yet another product of a speedskating family, Audrey Simard, celebrating her ninth birthday just last week, may have been on skates before her older brother, Zavier, though it was he who (sort of) showed her the way when it came to donning the boots with the much more elongated blades.
“I wasn’t so sure at first,” said Simard, mere months into her grade four schooling at Ecole Publique Hélène Gravel. “But when his first season was almost done, I thought I could try it the next year. It was fun; I was really into it.”
Though this is her fourth year with the Sprinters, there is an element of starting over for Simard and most of her teammates, those who have to overcome an 18 month hiatus, returning while trying to find their form.
Quickly, the features that captured their attention initially return while the coaches focus on the next stage of the skater development. On this particular evening, that would be those dreaded cross-overs around the corners.
“The cross-overs make speedskating fun - and the speed limit that you go,” stated Audrey. “It’s super fast. I love going fast, but I’m not good at doing cross-overs when I’m going fast with these skates, just yet. That’s what I am trying to do now.”
There are just so many aspects to each and every skill, the subtleties that combine to trim precious seconds from race results. Simard looks to one of the more accomplished Sprinters for motivation, an example of the skater should might yet become.
“I don’t do this yet, because I’m not too professional at speedskating yet, but when you get more and more advanced, like Olivier (Tremblay), he will put his hand out on the ground when he is doing the corners,” she said.
Practice is good, but meets are what drives the kids - at least once they get beyond that initial bugaboo of racing.
“I want to race, but I’m still a little nervous,” said Simard. “What if I’m with all fast people and I’m the slowest?” Thankfully, the Sudbury Sprinters, as a club, have helped ease the process.
“I did a race, but it was only just a fun race,” Simard recalled. “We didn’t win any medals or anything - but we won a bag of toys.”
This is a clearly a local sports group that understands the importance of attracting new members.