Olympic Oval hosts speed skating champions

By Orlagh O’Kelly

A phenomenal display of athleticism took place on campus at the Olympic Oval last weekend. At Calgary’s 2007 Essent ISU World Cup speed skating competition, athletes smashed two world records, broke 40 national records and set 191 personal best times.

Germany’s Jenny Wolf took the weekend’s first world record in the 500 metre sprint event, lowering her previous mark to 37.02 seconds.

In Saturday’s 5000 metre race, Sven Kramer from the Netherlands answered last weekend’s world record performance by Italy’s Enrico Fabris. The Dutchman smashed the previous mark by over three seconds, covering the 5000 metres in an astounding time of 6:03.32.

Leading the Canadian contingent, the notoriously inconsistent Jeremy Wotherspoon silenced naysayers with his showing. After a year of rest, the Red Deer native smashed the 500 metre world record at the first World Cup of the season in Salt Lake City last weekend. In Calgary, Wotherspoon won both rounds of the 500 metre sprint, prevailing over Russian Dimitri Lobkov’s and American Tucker Fredricks’ national record times. The victory was Wotherspoon’s 61st World Cup title and a great comeback.

At the longer distance race, Wotherspoon’s teammate Denny Morrison edged him out with a gold medal performance in the 1000 metre. Morrison also led the Canadian men to a win in the men’s team pursuit.

On the women’s side, rising star Christine Nesbitt out-performed Canada’s most decorated female athlete, Cindy Klassen. Nesbitt also beat Olympic medalist and German speed skating sweetheart Anni Friesinger in the 1500 metre. In the 1000 metre, Nesbitt showed her versatility by adding a silver medal to her collection. Kristina Groves also garnered two bronze medals in the 1500 metre and 3000 metre distances. Collectively, Germany beat the Canadian women in the team pursuit.

Given these performances, the rate at which records fall in the speed skating world is astonishing. At similar-calibre competitions in athletics or swimming, for instance, personal best times are scarce and world records are as rare as speed skaters with chicken legs.

The Calgary event manager, Lynda Murch, and the Olympic Oval Communications Specialist, Bridget Cox offered some explanation for the fast times.

“The venue here, as well as in Salt Lake City, are conducive to fast times,” said Murch.

According to Murch and Cox, there are a number of factors contributing to these two venues’ fast ice. The ice maker, the pressure and the weather all play a role in the quality of the ice. But much of what sets the Salt Lake City and Calgary tracks apart is the altitude, which affects the aerodynamics of the skaters, among other things. The athletes, with lofty goals of setting records, will often plan accordingly for the World Cup races in Salt Lake City and Calgary.

Interestingly, there is a longstanding rivalry between the venues over the amount of world records held and broken. In fact, Mark Greenwald, the Oval’s director, initiated a challenge with his counterpart in Salt Lake City: the venue to come away with the most world records following the recent World Cup competitions, would have to hang the other venue’s banner. Following both events, Calgary lost the competitions and the bet. Salt Lake City’s banner is on its way north.

The Calgary Olympic Oval, which opened in Dec. 1987, still holds the claim to the most records ever broken, standing at over 120 world records.

“We still feel we are the fastest ice in the world,” said Cox. “As Mark put it, we lost this battle, but we’re still winning the war.”

The only real disappointment of the successful weekend was the surprisingly sparse crowd on ‘Free Student Friday’ to watch the Canadians compete against–and beat–the world’s speed skating best.

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