Justine L’Heureux & Philippe Riopel: future of Canadian speed skating

Article by Jolanda Abbes - With extremely successful Canadian speed skaters like Cindy Klassen and Jeremy Wotherspoon, and a new generation that is already making quite a name for itself with skaters like Christine Nesbitt and Denny Morrison, there appears to be a lot to look forward to for Canada when it comes to the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. However, there already seems to be a younger generation almost ready to start knocking at the door, including Justine L’Heureux and Philippe Riopel, who were able to impress at the World Junior Championships last February.

With the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver there seemingly is no end to the stream of new and very talented Canadian speed skaters. After years of just a few Canadians playing their part in the international competitions, now, as we get closer to 2010, more and more Canadian speed skaters seem to be able to compete at the level necessary to really reach for the medals. On top of that, well-known speed skaters like Cindy Klassen and Jeremy Wotherspoon, who both took some time off after the Olympics in Torino, have already made or are planning to make their comeback to speed skating soon. However, not only the present holds some real promises, the future of Canadian speed skating seems to be bright as well with some very talented juniors that might already be able to qualify for Vancouver 2010. Meet Philippe Riopel and Justine L’Heureux, both 18, and anxious to follow in Wotherspoon’s and Klassen’s footsteps.

Even though their names might not ring many bells for most people yet, Riopel and L’Heureux have been quite successful this past season. Riopel can look back on his season with great satisfaction. He raced a good 500m and 1500m at the World Junior Championships and ended up fourth overall at this competition. On top of that, he was able to skate a Canadian junior record time in the 500m at the Finale races in Calgary in March. Speed Skating Canada recognized these accomplishments last June by presenting him with the ‘Rising Star Award – Long Track’ at the Annual General Meeting Banquet. “At SSC’s Banquet, I was recognized as a Rising Star in the country”, explained Riopel. “I really did not expect that, since nobody told me about it and I didn’t even know that category existed, so I was pretty surprised. It means a lot to me to know that Speed Skating Canada recognizes the good results I had last year. Hopefully, I can do even better next year, because I don’t think I could win that award 2 years in a row!”

Of his last season’s successes, Riopel said: “I am pretty satisfied about last season. After the first couple of races I had this year, I wanted to get top five at the World Junior Championships. Once I got there, I noticed that the top three wasn't impossible. I missed it by only 0.06 point, which made me think a lot on how I raced that weekend. I think I learned a lot from this past season and I really don't regret my choice of moving to Calgary and stopping short track. I’m already looking forward to next season!”

L’Heureux looks back with more mixed feelings: “It was a year in which I learned a lot, both in terms of speed skating and mentally. It was not an easy year. I had a lot of bad races and competitions, but I tried to stay positive and focused on my goal of the season, which was the World Junior Championships. And this was my best competition of the year, so I was happy about that.” L’Heureux ended up eighth overall at this competition, improving her results considerably compared to the previous season.

Now how did these two athletes from Quebec end up in long track speed skating and was it a love at first sight or did they try out other sports as well? L’Heureux started out at an early age and had her first skating lesson when she was four years old. “Up until three years ago I did both short track and long track, then I decided to quit short track. I did gymnastics and soccer when I was really young. Then I did track and field and cross-country during all my high school years. I stopped competing two summers ago.” In addition to speed skating, L’Heureux competes in road cycling competitions in the off-season: “A lot of speed skating friends were doing it in the summer, so I decided to try one competition. And two summers ago, when I left track and field, I did some competitions as training. But I didn't race in any competitions last year.”

Riopel started speed skating at the age of eight: “I wanted to play hockey, just like all the other kids do in Canada, but I didn't know how to skate. My mom decided to make me do speed skating so I could learn how to skate, but after the first season I decided to keep skating since I had just found my new love. I played a bit of baseball and soccer when I was younger but nothing serious. Just for fun.”

Despite the fact they’re only at the very beginning of what will hopefully turn into a great speed skating career, both L’Heureux and Riopel can already look back on some nice accomplishments. Riopel: “The highlights of my career so far would have to be my second place in the 500m and the two fourth places in the 1500m and overall at the World Junior Championships this year.” L’Heureux: “I went to the World Junior Championships and improved my results, so I'm glad about that. And I was also very happy when I made the World Cup team.”

Still, in every career, no matter how short or long, there always seems to be at least one thing an athlete would like to forget about as soon as possible. Fortunately, Riopel is still able to laugh about this thing in his career: “What I would like to forget would be the Team Pursuit at the World Junior Championships in Austria. Haha, the final was pretty bad... We skated the qualification round and barely made it to the B final for place 3-4. In the final, I got dropped and we had bad exchanges. The Koreans beat us and we ended up fourth.” And for L’Heureux there’s even an upside to her less satisfying performances: “Well, it's hard to say what I would like to forget! Maybe some of my 3k’s this year were not so good. But I think that I need to have a bad race from time to time if I want to have good ones. So I can't really forget those bad races, but I can learn from them and then improve.”

When being asked, it’s not easy for Riopel to indicate which distances he likes to skate the most: “It’s hard to answer that since I like every distance I skate. But if I would have to pick, I think it would be between the 500m and the 5k. I know, a big difference! But the 500m reminds me of short track, which I just stopped doing this year. And the 5k, I like it because it is like a fight with pain. If you are stronger than the pain, it should be a good race.” L’Heureux seems to be torn even more when it comes to naming her favourite distances: “I like the 1000m, the 1500m, the 3k. I can't really choose between those three, because I'm always racing the three. I like the 1000m because it's at full speed but you still need endurance, the 1500m because it’s so intense, and the 3k because it's long and you can try different things for each race, like strategy and stuff.”

Now are their favourite distances also the distances they would consider to be their best? Riopel: “Looking at the results from the National Single Distances Championships, I would have to say the 1000m and the 500m are my best distances. I qualified 5th in the 1000m, earning a spot on the World Cup team for the Heerenveen Sprint World Cup, but I decided not to go so I could focus on the World Junior Championships that were only a couple of weeks later. I also got 5th in the 500m and I have both junior national records in those two distances.” L’Heureux: “Well, last year I would have said the 3k but now my 1500m is not so bad, so those two are close. But I think I would still say the 3k!”

Both L’Heureux and Riopel competed at the World Junior Championships in Austria this year and can look back with satisfaction, placing eighth and fourth overall respectively and earning all top ten finishes in the individual distances. L’Heureux looks back pleased: “My 500m was okay, some mistakes but it was not that bad. My 1500m and my 1000m were my best distances; I felt good and strong. My two best races of the year maybe. But my 3k , it was not very good, the time was too slow. Overall, I wanted to beat my 14th position of last year, which I did, and I was happy about that. Maybe I could have done better with a better 3k, but I’m content.”

When asking Riopel about his experiences in Austria, he gets really excited and tells it all: “In the 500m I was paired with Mike Plummer from the US. I had a really good start, and on the back stretch I lined up right behind him trying to get the best draft possible and then just hammered the last corner. I ended second behind the winner from last year's 500m in Erfurt, Tae-Bum Mo. That gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the competition. In the 3k I was paired with my teammate Jordan Belchos. The race was pretty good, but in the last two laps I felt like I was really tired and Jordan pulled away from me. He ended up finishing fourth, and I got the ninth place. The next day we had the 1500m in the morning. The ice was really bad for that race. The half of the ice that was exposed to the sun, was covered with water and dust that was blown by the wind. When I got to the starting line, I felt like my blades were not really sharp even though I sharpened them right before my race. I ended up finishing fourth with two badly stripped edges on both insides of my blades. After that race I was sitting in second only 0.77 behind Sjoerd de Vries. Paired with my other teammate Vincent Blouin in the 5k, and in the same quad as Sjoerd, I knew I needed a good race there, but after only a couple of laps I felt like I had nothing in my legs. I don't know why, but I couldn't really fight the pain. With two laps to go, Sjoerd passed me and went on to win the championship, while my coach was yelling that I still had a shot at the podium. I would have needed to be 0.60 seconds faster in that 5k to be third overall. But I think I learned more this way. That it's not because you have a bad race, that everything is over.”

With the upcoming Olympic Games being in Vancouver, it’s obvious all Canadian speed skaters will want to qualify for that. So how do Riopel and L’Heureux look forward to these upcoming years, what will be their goals, and do they think they will have a shot at qualifying for Vancouver 2010? For the years to come, a path has been outlined, even though it might be hard to predict what will happen, since they’re still so young. However, both are clear on their goals for next season. L’Heureux is looking forward to improving her results at the next World Junior Championships and will work on her technique in order to achieve that goal. As for Riopel: “Next year, I would really like to qualify on the Fall World Cup team for the 1000m, to get some World Cup experience. And since next year is my last year as a junior, I would like to bring the World Junior Champion title back to Canada.”

So if and when these goals are met, then what’s next? Will they be focusing on the All-round competitions or will they pay more attention to the individual distances? And in case of a focus on the individual distances, which will those be? Riopel: “I don't really know yet, it is pretty hard to say as a junior. But I really enjoy skating sprints and middle distances, although I don't mind skating the 5k. But since I never skated a 10k, it would maybe change my mind.” L’Heureux: “I still want to focus on the All-round distances. But I also want to work on my speed and on my long distance strategy in the years to come.”

From the looks of it now, the Canadian long track speed skating team will be incredibly strong in 2010, and it will probably be very hard for most speed skaters to earn a spot on the Olympic team. Still, both L’Heureux and Riopel will do their utmost to qualify for the Olympics. L’Heureux: “It will be hard to qualify because the competition will be very strong, but I will definitely try and I will see at that time how I am doing!” Riopel: “Vancouver 2010 is like a dream to me. It would be my first Olympics and it would be here in Canada, it would be just great! But we'll see how things go after next year when I turn senior.”

All in all, both Riopel and L’Heureux seem to be part of a bright future for Canadian speed skating, and especially Riopel’s end of the season indicates there might be a lot more to come. At the Finale races at the Olympic Oval in Calgary he skated a personal best and a Canadian junior record time of 35.81 seconds in the 500m. “It was the end of the season and I was getting pretty tired. But I knew the ice was going to be fast, so I decided that I would just go there and have some fun. I got the chance to race against some experienced skaters like Simon Kuipers and Beorn Nijenhuis, and they helped me a lot in getting that personal best when I was skating with them.”

So now, with only one more year as a junior ahead of them, L’Heureux and Riopel are almost ready to turn senior and to start competing at the senior competitions. After that, only time can tell if they will in fact be able to fill Klassen’s and Wotherspoon’s shoes...

Personal best times

Justine L’Heureux:
500m: 40.45
1000m : 1:18.24
1500m: 2:00.11
3000m: 4:12.75

Philippe Riopel:
500m: 35.81
1000m: 1:09.36
1500m: 1:47.9
3000m: 3:48.2
5000m: 6:38.4