It’s a youngster’s game, and the plain truth is he’s, well, old.
At 29, he’s not exactly ancient by real-world standards, but the Olympic short-track speed-skating oval is a universe unto itself – and three-time medalist Charles Hamelin is gearing for his chance to show that wiles and maturity can still triumph over youthful vigour.
“It feels like everybody on the circuit is 18 or 19 – the Koreans, Chinese, Americans, they’re all 10 years younger than me – but as long as I have the sense I’m getting better, I don’t really see myself as old or feel that way,” he said with a laugh after a training session at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal, where the national short-track squad is readying for its 2014 Olympic selection trials.
Hamelin was the only Canadian athlete to win multiple gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games – in the 500 metres and the 5,000 relay – and next week, he’ll vie for a spot on the national squad for the Sochi Games.
Though Hamelin is appropriately focused on the immediate task, it would be an upset of epic proportions were he not to qualify for a ticket to Russia at the Olympic trials, which will be held in Montreal from Aug. 7 to Aug. 18.
The native of Sainte-Julie, Que., remains a strong medal hope in Sochi, and the expectation is he’ll lead a veteran squad of skaters into Sochi that could include François-Louis Tremblay – a 32-year-old who would tie Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes as Canada’s most-decorated Olympian (six each) were he to capture a medal – and 29-year-old Olivier Jean, both of whom were on the gold-medal relay squad in 2010.
The men’s program is still working under long-time coach Derrick Campbell, and recently completed a gruelling training camp in Budapest, which the Canadians have been using since last year as a staging ground for the upcoming Games, they’ll return twice more before heading to Sochi.
“By the end, I think everyone had had just about enough,” Hamelin said with a laugh. “The weather conditions are about the same as Sochi, so is the elevation. The ice conditions in Sochi are going to be similar.”
It’s not quite the same thing as having home-ice advantage in the way they did in Vancouver – a rink they had considerable access to – but neither is there pressure this time around.
“In a way, Sochi is going to be easier. Vancouver was great, don’t get me wrong, but there were a lot of people looking over our shoulder,” he said. “Four years later, I feel stronger on the track, and mentally as well. So hopefully we can put together some good performance in Sochi – unless I’m too old by then.”
That is doubtful.
Hamelin won a pair of bronze medals at the most recent world championships and finished third in the overall standings – he says it’s the best he’s felt physically in any of his 10 appearances at the worlds.
“Of course, I want to repeat what I did in Vancouver,” he said. “Or do better … but I don’t go into it thinking I have to defend those medals, or I was the world champion or whatever. It’s going to be a great Olympics, the venues are walking distance to the athletes’ village, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Hamelin’s not the only skater with an individual medal to defend in Sochi.
His girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais, won silver in the 500 m as a teenager in 2010, although many fans better remember the ecstatic kiss the pair exchanged after Hamelin won the men’s 500 by a toe – it was one of the moments of the Games.
The effervescent St-Gelais says her Olympic preparations are different this time around as well.
“There are expectations now, but it’s better that way,” she said, although she was quick to add: “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like a veteran.”
This is likely the last hurrah for Hamelin and the bulk of the men’s team – several promising youngsters, like 21-year-old Charle Cournoyer, are knocking at the door and could even cause surprises at the upcoming trials.
St-Gelais joked she’ll try and convince Hamelin to go for one more Olympics in 2018, but it’s more likely he’ll be there as a spectator, cheering her on.
Sochi is his big chance, so the young guys should mind themselves.