He won gold in Vancouver and badly wants to add to his medal collection at the 2014 Sochi Games. To get there he’s facing off not just against other competitors, but against his national federation.
Because of a dispute between long-track skater Mathieu Giroux and Speed Skating Canada over where and how he should train – they wanted him in Calgary, he stayed in Montreal – the 2010 Olympic champion in team pursuit was recently excluded from the national team and had his monthly stipend of about $2,000 revoked.
He’s also been scrubbed from the team listings on Speed Skating Canada’s website, a move viewed as a needless indignity by his supporters in the skating community.
“Actually, that’s how I found out I wasn’t on the team any more,” Giroux noted dryly.
Gone is the access to team doctors, physios and massage therapists; he must pay his own way to qualifying races.
Reached at home, Giroux was reluctant to discuss the imbroglio. “I’ve had amazing support in the past. In Canada, athletes are treated very well.”
His reticence is commendable. The 26-year-old is within his rights to be ticked off, an elite athlete forced to choose between his sport and his studies.
Senior officials contend they simply applied the rules. Mark Mathies, the federation’s executive director of sport, indicated “this was not an easy decision for anyone involved.”
He stressed that “Mathieu is a incredible athlete and person” and “a critical part” of the 2014 picture.
Ultimately, Mathies said, the conclusion was reached that training in Montreal with the short-track team, as Giroux has done for the past two years, “is no longer appropriate” at a crucial point in the preparation cycle.
“As we look at an Olympic quadrennial, of course we want to be supportive of academics,” Mathies said. “But we’re more open to that in the first two years. For this year, it becomes difficult, especially when on one side of the country we’re asking athletes to attend every training session at the same time someone on the other side trains on his own.”
Giroux feels he has a compelling reason: the doctor of pharmacy degree he’s been pursuing since 2005 at the University of Montreal. If he doesn’t finish by 2015, he’ll have to start from scratch.
Time is of the essence.
He’ll switch to full-time training after the 2013 winter semester. He’ll still have most of a 12-month internship to squeeze in after Sochi.
“I’ve already had to start over once, in 2007 they changed the degree requirements,” he said. “I’m not keen to do it again.”
Moving to Calgary would have required Giroux to forget about graduating; the nearest pharmacy program is in Edmonton. He could have moved to Quebec City, which has a pharmacy school, but the national training centre is an outdoor oval with a short season and iffy conditions.
Giroux is the first to accept his commitment to school has consequences. But he doesn’t see why he should lose his funding and give up a training regimen that has served him well since switching from short-track in late 2008, and that the federation was fine with.
“There are lots of long-track skaters who train on short tracks, [U.S. gold medalist] Shani Davis does it, several of the Koreans do it,” he said. “I think it’s been good for me.”
It became clear to Giroux this year that his situation was uncomfortable for the short-track team. So he opted to train with the development squad, before finding out he’d have to pay, as per the rules.
He now skates at his childhood club, and finds it “a little surprising that they would handle it this way.”
The irony is his girlfriend, a competitive cyclist, lives in Calgary. He spent the summer there, but Speed Skating Canada says Giroux’s decision to move home forced its hand.
Mathies said the long-track program, which had a change in leadership in 2010, had to draw a line and claimed Giroux’s preference to work out of Montreal isn’t unanimously popular with his peers and coaches.
He added: “This year, the third year in the cycle, is probably the most critical year in getting athletes to make that next step.”
But it’s not like Giroux’s form has deserted him. He won silver in the team pursuit at the 2011 world championships, and finished eighth in the 1,500 metres. He’s the 2012 national champion at the distance.
Giroux qualified for the World Cup squad this fall, and posted the second-fastest Canadian 1,500-metre time at a race in Kolomna, Russia (he considers his performance disappointing).
Speed Skating Canada says it will reinstate Giroux if he makes the international qualifying standard and accepts to relocate. The question is whether the new circumstance will hamper his results.
Either way, he will continue to go to school and skate. Next up: January’s national trials for the 2013 world championships. The qualifier, naturally, is being held in Calgary.
“My goal is still to make the worlds, and then the Olympics,” he said. “I’m going to keep skating no matter what happens.”