One hundred and eighty or so young speed skaters from across the province had registered to race at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex, this coming weekend, host venue for the Ontario Provincial "B" Speed Skating Championships.
And though fears over the spread of COVID-19 have derailed this event, and pretty much every other sporting competition in its path, the virus has done nothing to negate the progress that the Sudbury Sprinters speed skating club has made in recent years.
"Five years ago, the club was very small, down to six or seven members," explained Sprinters club president Serge Loiselle, one of several individuals that figured prominently in the successful bid to stage the province-wide meet in Sudbury.
"We've been growing over the past few years," he added. "In the greater scheme of Ontario speed skating, Sudbury is a smaller, fringe club. I kind of wanted to bring us back on the circuit, and recognized."
"We wanted to host a competition because competitions do bring money, to help the club. Unfortunately, we really couldn't host a small regional competition, because we just wouldn't have the people come up. We kind of had to go for the gusto, a little bigger event" - an event that is no more.
Not that this changes the outlook for a group of enthusiasts, practitioners of an under the radar athletic activity that has somehow captivated individuals locally in a whole variety of ages and sizes.
Ten year old Zavier Simard is in his second year with the club, his mother the catalyst for a pastime that seems to have hit home with the grade four student at Ecole publique Helene Gravel. "I liked skating and tried hockey, but didn't really like it," said Simard. "Then my mom saw a picture of speed skating on Facebook, and she asked me if I wanted to try it."
"It was different. You need to get lower to get a bigger push. And when you walk, you can't walk like you would on hockey skates. You walk in a V."
Racing last year for the very first time, Simard has competed in distances ranging from two to four to six laps. "I think my favourite is six," he explained. "I will start a bit slower, in the first two laps, because if I start too fast, I will get tired. But then I pretty much sprint my last four laps."
Striding past, at practice, to the outside of Simard, 27 year old Jordan Tingle might well offer the most unique rationale, that we have heard to date, regarding jumping into the speed skating spectrum. "I've played a lot of sports, and they were never suited for my body type," suggested the Toronto native, who accepted a work-related move to Sudbury some three years ago.
"I was curious about speed skating and googled the national team and a bunch of the skaters were about my size - 5'9" and 160 pounds. I thought why not take up something that suits my physiology."
With a lengthier history in Canada's favourite winter sport, Tingle noticed a slightly more challenging transition over to the undertaking for which he has now training diligently for the past five months.
"There are similarities, like crossovers, being comfortable on one blade, gliding, but overall, it's very different," he said. "You kind of have to turn off your brain and remember that you can't just stay on the flats of your skates. That was a big adjustment, probably for the first month or so."
In fact, not all skates are even created equal.
"The speed skate is cut differently, the profile is different," Tingle continued. "Ideally, you want a square edge, a ninety degree angle on the blade, whereas with hockey, you want it concave. In hockey, you have edge work, but it's more aggressive in speed skating. Instead of cutting the ice in hockey, you want to press against the ice."
While it wasn't necessarily a given that Tingle would compete in races this year, he has maintained quite a grounded approach, especially considering his relatively late entry into the field. "When I compete, I am facing 12, 13 and 14 year olds," he said. "They're phenomenal."
"A majority of them are faster than me, and that's really all technique. They definitely keep me humble."
While the passion for speed skating might well continue to grow within the likes of Simard, Tingle and others, it could be a bit before they reach the level of Ellie Anderson.
A 22 year old fourth year Sport & Physical Education student at Laurentian University, who hails originally from Belleville and skated for years with the Quinte Blades, Anderson actually ensured that a speed skating club existed, in Sudbury, before committing to making the move north to pursue her post-secondary studies.
"I just liked the sport so much that I just wanted to stay involved with it," she stated. Since her arrival at L.U., Anderson has served as a coach with the Sprinters, a role for which she was groomed, for some time now, back home.
"I started coaching at my club when I was still pretty young," she recalled. "It was more of a leadership thing, where we were taught to take it on early. I actually worked with the Special Olympics - it was very rewarding."
While she can't speak to every other sport, Anderson cannot say enough good things about a speed skating environment that helped nurture her interest in the sport. "You are supported in every way," she noted. "From coaching, to people that host the meets, you are welcomed every time you walk into the rink."
"It's been an outlet, for me, for years, just to get away from school. I've always had a great experience."