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Christine Nesbitt was a perennial favourite in long-track speed skating, but she was sidelined by Celiac disease in 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Christine Nesbitt was a perennial favourite in long-track speed skating, but she was sidelined by Celiac disease in 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sochi 2014

After an injury scare, Nesbitt once again on inside track for Olympic gold Add to ...

Christine Nesbitt is riding a stationary bike and talking through a cell phone, but something in what she is saying doesn’t sound quite right.

It’s not that Nesbitt is huffing and puffing through her words, having just gotten off the ice, and is now hitting the bike for some extra cardio. That’s typical Nesbitt.

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What is so unusual is how strange it is to hear the defending Olympic gold medalist referring to herself as “an underdog.”

Four years ago, those words would have been unthinkable. Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, few people in long-track speed skating – men’s or women’s – held such dominance over the sport as Nesbitt.

She was virtually unbeatable on the World Cup circuit, and by the time she took the ice at the Richmond Oval in 2010, her victory in the women’s 1000-metre race seemed almost predetermined.

Not even a broken arm the following summer, after being hit by a car while riding her bike in Calgary, could slow the skater from London, Ont. For the next two seasons, Nesbitt ran roughshod over the competition.

A repeat gold in Sochi seemed like one of the easiest bets in Canadian sport.

Then her training fell apart. An unknown health problem hit in the 2013 season, and made Nesbitt look human. Eventually diagnosed as Celiac disease, she learned last summer she was gluten intolerant.

Thankfully it was a relatively easy problem to fix – making a few dietary alterations. But it left her reeling from a lost year.

She came into this winter aching to find her form again.

But a series of frustratingly sluggish skates on the international stage forced Nesbitt to instead take drastic measures. In November she abandoned the world circuit and returned home to Canada to focus on more intense training. With only months to go until Sochi, it was a massive detour compared to the straight-as-an-arrow path she took to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“I feel like Vancouver is so long ago,” Nesbitt says. “Going into Vancouver, I think I was a huge favourite. And these Olympics – let’s be honest – I’m going in more as an underdog.”

It’s a new feeling, and one that she’s come to terms with: “That suits me just fine. It doesn’t mean I can’t have great races.”

That’s the thing about Nesbitt. Even with uncertainty bearing down, it would be foolish to count her out.

Though her rivals haven’t seen Nesbittt on a podium in a while, teammates and coaches have described her as one of the fiercest competitors they’ve seen.

Her preparation for Vancouver included training against male skaters to reach the next level of velocity, a regimen that presented new physical and mental challenges, and made her faster. Though she’s gone a different route in preparation for Sochi – training with both men and women – Nesbitt says she has been focusing on peaking in February. She has also restored the confidence she lost in 2013.

Though missing on the international circuit for much of this season, Nesbitt resurfaced at the Canadian Olympic team selections camp in early January. Surprisingly – or perhaps not – she won her distances, at 500-metres as well as in her two specialties, the 1,000 and 1,500.

“I didn’t know where I stood in Canada, or even just compared to my old self,” Nesbitt says of the races. “But every day I had good races, and I had something positive. So I’m really looking forward to Sochi. I’m in a good place.”

Nesbitt says she has found a familiar groove in the 1,500 – a race that is considered by many to be the sport’s most gruelling event, since it is both an endurance race and a sprint. At 28, she is keeping a close eye on her fatigue levels, and making sure she has the power in her stride needed to explode off the line, and still have enough to accelerate in the home stretch.

But even with the reassuring performance in the 1,500-metres, Nesbitt says she was disappointed with her time in the last lap. It should’ve been 30 seconds, she says, but it was worse. “Thirty-two seconds for me,” she says bitterly.

Her competitive fire has never been in doubt, as Nesbitt showed in Vancouver, coming from behind in the last two laps of the 1,000-metre race to win gold. It’s what made her practically unbeatable in those years when she dominated the sport. A podium shot remains within her grasp, and she knows it.

“I’ve developed much more beyond just being a speed skater, and I think that helps me in speed skating as well,” Nesbitt says. “And who knows what’s going to happen in Sochi? I’m going in there feeling like I have fight in me, and I’m excited. And that combination is usually a pretty successful combination for me. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do.”