Cindy Klassen named Canada's female athlete of the year by Canadian Press

Please add this logo, if needed, to start of story Early in her speed skating career, Cindy Klassen was told she skated like a hockey player.

Not surprising, considering Klassen played hockey until she was 18, then took up long-track speed skating during her first year at university for something to do. Hockey's loss turned out to be Canada's gain as Klassen has blossomed into one of the world's best speed skaters and a medal threat at the Turin Winter Olympics in February.

An outstanding 2005 season, which saw her set four world records and win eight World Cup medals, made Klassen a decisive winner of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada's female athlete of the year in a survey by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News.

"It's incredible," Klassen, a Winnipeg native who now lives and trains in Calgary, said in her typically modest fashion.

"Just doing the sport itself is so rewarding. To be honoured with something like this is something special. I'm really excited about that. It's quite an honour."

The award is named after Bobbie Rosenfeld, the track star who was Canada's female athlete of the half-century in 1950.

As she's done in so many races, Klassen dominated the field in this year's balloting, collecting 264 points and 71 first-place ballots in voting by sports editors and broadcasters across the country.

"Cindy Klassen continues to dominate in her sport," said Lorne Motley, deputy sports editor at the Calgary Herald.

Klassen, 26, also becomes the third speed skater in five years to win the award. Two-time Olympic gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan won in 2001 and 2002.

Christine Sinclair, the Burnaby, B.C., soccer player who led the University of Portland to an undefeated season and the NCAA championship, was second in this year's voting with 81 points and 14 first-place votes. Diver Blythe Hartley of North Vancouver, B.C., who won a gold medal in the one-metre springboard at last summer's world aquatic championships in Montreal, was third with 65 points and eight first-place votes.

Other women who received consideration included speed skater Clara Hughes of Winnipeg; moguls skier Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta.; Olympic hockey team forward Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont.; cross-country skier Sara Renner of Canmore, Alta.; mountain biker Marie-Helene Premont of Chateau-Richer, Que.; and alpine skier Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C.

Klassen's easy laugh and sparkling smile hides a ferocious competitive spirit. On the ice she's a machine, driven by legs like pistons.

She was the overall World Cup champion in the 1,500 metres in the 2004-05 season.

At the world speed skating championships she finished second overall. At the world single-distance championships she won three medals, including the gold in both the 1,500 and 3,000 metres.

Already this season Klassen has set world records in the 1,500 and 3,000 metres. During World Cup races at the Olympic oval in Turin earlier this month she won silver medals in the 1,000, 3,000 and 1,500 metres.

Setting world records is a huge confidence boost, but Klassen's goal is an Olympic medal.
"It's great any time you have skated a personal best," she said.

"To have it a world record is a bonus. But it doesn't mean anything when you come to the Games. When you get to the Games, it could be anybody's day. Someone who has been skating in the middle of the pack might come out and be on form in the Games." Growing up in Winnipeg with her two sisters and a brother, Klassen loved playing hockey. Her strength was her skating but making the transition from the rink to an oval wasn't easy.

"The technique was something that was pretty hard to pick up and not something you just learn overnight," said Klassen, who won a bronze medal in the 3,000 metres as an Olympic rookie at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

"I had the strength in my legs from playing hockey but technically that was something that took a long time to learn."

Having a facility like Calgary's Olympic Oval, a legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympics, has been instrumental in Canada developing speed skaters like Le May Doan, Olympic medallist Jeremy Wotherspoon and newcomers like Denny Morrison and Christine Nesbitt.

"You see a lot of other countries, they don't have a home base," said Klassen.
"They travel around to different ovals all the time. Here we are so lucky to live by the oval and be able to go to school while we are training. It's a great facility and the ice conditions are always really good."

Klassen also credited her coach Neal Marshall for honing her skills.

"He's been in the sport and been very successful," she said. "He's been there, he knows what we are going through and had a huge impact on my career."

Having gone through the pressure of one Olympics, Klassen knows what to expect at Turin. The trick will be to shut out the media and the expectations of a nation and focus on doing what she does so well.

"When I get to the Games I want to try and make it the same as what we do all year," she said. "We skate against the same people, race the same races, there's just a little bit more hype around it.

"I just want to focus and not worry about distractions. I just want to focus on doing my thing and racing the race the way I know how to do it.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

A look at speed skater Cindy Klassen, who won the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as The Canadian Press female athlete of the year Wednesday:

Article by Jim Morris, Canadian Press