Hundreds of young Sudburians recently tuned in to coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics, marvelling at the athletic prowess of those who represented Canada with pride.
Every four years, a handful of these folks are sure to have their curiosity peaked by the skill-set of the national speed skating team, a regular key contributor to an ever increasing medal count for Team Canada at the Games.
Twenty-four year old Sudbury native Western University graduate Ashton Gobbo decided to take his interest to the next level.
“I’ve always been a hockey player, and what amazed me the most about this sport was how low they get to the ice when they go around the corners,” noted Gobbo, as he and his teammates with the Sudbury Sprinters (speed skating team) enjoyed their penultimate practice of the season last week at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex.
“I always remember I wanted to do exactly that. I wanted to skate the corners really fast and with my hand on the ice and get really low.” With a lifetime of hockey background at both the competitive and recreational levels, Gobbo launched himself into this new endeavour this past October. He was not about to tread lightly, in spite of his lack of experience.
“I tend to get addicted to things that I start,” stated the recipient of a Mechatronics Engineering degree some two years ago. “Now that I’ve started, I’ve fallen in love with it. We’ll see after this summer of training how far I get.”
And lest one believe that this ranks among the easier transitions in sport, moving from hockey to speed skating, Gobbo offers the following words of wisdom based on his insight. “It’s amazing how quickly the pain builds up in your legs when you’re in the squatting position,” he noted. “You think a couple of laps isn’t bad, and by lap four, your legs just start burning.”
“You gradually get better and every practice, you notice improvements – but then, when you get too fast around the corners, you can’t hold the corners and you start wobble. I thought I was doing great and then you record yourself at practice one day and you go, “Oh my God – I can’t believe I look like that”. You can work on the fitness every day off the ice, but you need to be on the ice to develop the technique.”
The truth for Gobbo and the handful of other brave souls who are committed to the twice weekly club practices and competitions, across the province, is that none of this might have been possible if not for the work of head coach Nicole Therrien – and family.
“I am not a skater, but I would like to say I have an interest in bio-mechanics,” admitted the licensed chiropractor. “I’m not going to say that I specialize in it, but I am familiar with it. I took a coach’s course just before John (Hreljac) stepped down. I hadn’t used it until I had to step up to the plate in order to keep the club alive. I also recruited my daughter (Alexie) and my son (Justin/J.J.), who had been skating for years.”
And though they are certainly not at full capacity, the Sudbury Sprinters are pleased at the growth that has been evident in recent years. “It’s been a while since we have had so many participants,” said Therrien. “We went to a Barrie meet and we brought 11 skaters – two of them are “cradles” (four and six years of age). Three quarters of our club was at this meet - that was the most exciting part.”
With limited numbers, relatively speaking, comes hurdles that must be overcome. “The most difficult/challenging thing is that we have four to five different groups of talent, of experience,” said Therrien. “It’s tough to try and make all of these different programs for all of these different groups.”
“You want the seasoned ones to really train so that they can improve their PBs, their times and then you have to try and develop the new ones and begin to change the habits from the figure skaters and hockey players we are getting.”
It’s still far better than the alternative, that no young Sudbury athletes were aware of the Sudbury Sprinters, that no one felt compelled to come out and give it a try. For Therrien and the remaining club organizers, the likes of Valérie Prevost, Hector Loiselle, Theo Papadakis and Carter Prince make it all worthwhile.
Just nine years old and in her first year of speed skating, all while balancing off a busy winter with her Sudbury Lady Wolves' team as well, Prevost appreciates the contrast in benefits that she can draw from each of her athletic pursuits, similar yet so different in many ways.
“I like racing,” Prevost admitted. “In speed skating, our skates are a lot longer and we don’t have as much equipment, no cage for our helmets. Speed skating is a little easier, I think, because you have a little more balance on your skates.”
Competing for the very first time earlier this month, Prevost began the path of speed skating self-discovery. “I don’t really like the 100 metres,” she learned. “I like the longer distances, something like 500 metres. I’m better in the longer races. In shorter races, I don’t have enough time to catch some of the other skaters.”
Also nine years of age and a grade four student at R.L. Beattie, Loiselle is already in year three of his speed skating career, clearly a student of the sport. “You need to have good technique, you need to have strong pushes and stuff like that,” he explained.
“You need really straight long pushes and then bring your feet back. Straightaways are tougher than corners. On straightaways, you don’t get as much speed as on the corners. You need to make up all of your speed on the corners, when you do the crossovers.”
As for his entry to the sport, we are beginning to see a pattern. “I passed Can Skate and I didn’t want to do figure skating or hockey,” said Loiselle. “I like going fast.” And that is definitely a sentiment that Ashton Gobbo can relate to, now more than ever.