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New initiatives means plenty of excitement for the Sudbury Sprinters
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It’s a standard Tuesday night Sudbury Sprinters practice at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Arena – but with the first major snowfall of the winter on hand, numbers are down, just a little.

Still, there is excitement in the voices of everyone you talk to.

From the club newcomer to the teenager looking to take the next step and on the Sprinters’ coaches and execs, there is a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead, exactly what the new few months will bring.

“We’ve been to two races and they’re a lot of fun – but a little bit stressful, because I don’t want to fall,” noted 11 year old Simone Thompson, she and older sister Mercia having taken the advice of a friend in wandering out to Try-It sessions back in September.

“There have been people right in front of me and the next thing you know, they’re falling,” she continued. “As long as I don’t skate over them, everything will be okay.”

Some four years of figure skating involvement provided Thompson with a skill-base – “we did crossovers in figure skating too, which is a lot like our corners here” – but there is still plenty to learn. For as much as she is drawn to the speed of the oval, and for as much as she is beginning to understand the factors that contribute to said speed, there remain hurdles, both physical and mental, to be cleared.

“I was told by a lot of people that staying low helps build up speed – and bending your knees, getting good pushes on the straights and mostly getting good crossovers. I still have a lot to work on.”

“I tend to get scared because of the speed on the corners and then I chicken out,” Thompson added. “I definitely find that a bit harder than the straighaways. A lot of people are able to build up speed around the corners and that’s usually where I lose speed.”

Speed was seemingly always part of the mix for 18 year-old Lockerby Composite senior Curtis Ciulini, long before he was introduced to speed skating just over a year ago. “I did hockey for quite a few years – and for a few years, I was kind of the fastest skater on the our team,” he said.

“People had pointed it out to me. My mother heard this and told me about the speed skating club.”

While the appeal to the next sport was virtually instantaneous, the understanding of where exactly speed was generated, and more specifically how if differed from going fast in hockey, became the first challenge that Ciulini would encounter.

“In hockey, you’re almost running on skates, in a sense, constantly going at it at a very high pace,” he opined. “In speed skating, you want to focus on long but powerful strides, more of a push to the side. You almost have a (body) position mix of alpine and cross-country skiing – but on skates.”

Yet beyond the technical differences comes the countered dynamics of taking to the ice with linemates, constantly vigilent of their actions and positioning, versus the self-immersed focus that is speed skating – to a large degree.

“In hockey, you’re on a team and if one thing isn’t functioning right, the whole thing is just going to go downhill,” said Ciulini. “With this, you know what you have to do, what you want to do.”

And still, as Thompson also noted, expect the unexpected.

“You have to be ready for everything,” stated Ciulini with a smile. “It’s probably best to prepare yourself for the worst, because anything is possible.”

The well-spoken multi-sport athlete with a background in alpine ski (as well as hockey) was part of the Sprinters contingent that travelled to London in early December, gradually becoming acquainted with the competitive environment. “I had to remember that these were my first races, so I am not trying to break any records,” he said.

“People we’re very good to give me feedback. It’s mostly just racing against me, myself and I, just trying to beat my personal bests.”

While Ciulini and mates have now done that on the short track circuit, the long track setting is far more difficult to locate.

“We’re trying out different initiatives this year,” club president Natalie Lefort stated proudly.

Perhaps none carries the excitement and intrigue more than a long-course weekend, organized in conjunction with the Speed Skating Ontario, targetting the dates of February 2nd – 4th (weather permitting), with the venue to be none other than Queen’s Athletic Field.

“The only outdoor oval in Ontario that is certified is in Ottawa,” explained Lefort. “Two years ago, the championships were delayed twice (due to weather). Last year, they were delayed and eventually cancelled. They don’t have a zamboni or an area for skaters to warm up.” (both of which Queen’s A.F. does possess)

And with football no longer being played at Queen’s, the ability to alter the skating oval into, well, an oval (versus it’s former more rectangular shape with squared off end zones) is too good an option to ignore.

“It’s not quite as wide as we need it to host a meet, but we have the configuration and the shape,” said Lefort. Plans right now call for a community event on Friday (February 2nd), with hockey athletes of all ages invited to come out and test their lap times against those posted by the youngsters with the elongated blades.

On Saturday, the SSO is organizing a long track training camp, with the hopes of bringing in 60 or more athletes from across the province, with some racing set for Sunday.

And if that doesn’t get the Sudbury Sprinters excited – not to mention the sports community at large – nothing else will.

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