They dubbed it their secret "Commando" strategy. And for Canada's short-track speed skaters, the plan turned out to be crucial to claiming silver in the women's 3,000-metre relay.
Knowing they would face strong squads from South Korea and China in Sochi, the women's short-track relay team honed the plan all season in practice. It was called the "Commando" because it involved using three skaters heavily early in the race, while preserving the fourth for a burst of speed near the end. It was also designed to throw off the other squads by subbing in skaters at unexpected times.
"We hadn't tried that in a race at all this year… so we weren't really sure how it was going to go," Canadian Jessica Hewitt said afterward. "It went pretty well."
The Canadian team of Marie-Eve Drolet, Valerie Maltais, Marianne St-Gelais, and Hewitt, were able to keep pace with the speedy Chinese and Korean teams throughout the entire four-team race, thanks to a fast start helped by the Commando, and at the end when they put a wide gap between themselves and fourth-place Italy.
When they crossed the finish line at the end of 27 laps, Canada was in third place, and the team figured they had won bronze. Moments later, they erupted in cheers when the race judge disqualified second-place China for interfering with a Canadian skater. After their laps, relay skaters are required to immediately drift inside of the short-track, but a Chinese skater lingered too long, impeding Canada's way, the judge said.
The decision gave Canada the silver medal, and left the Chinese fuming.
"We waited a long time for this," said Hewitt. The race happened so fast that the Canadians didn't realize the foul by their opponent was enough to move them up a position.
"It's so fast," Drolet said of the race. "It's like watching a movie and not actually being in the movie," Hewitt added.
Korea won gold in a time of 4:09.498, followed by Canada at 4:10.641. Italy, which trailed most of the race, won the bronze in a time of 4:14.014.
It was a tight race with Korea, China and Canada battling for first. Korea and China exchanged leads for most of the race, with Canada vying for second as they preserved energy for the kick at the end. Relay skaters typically skate 1.5 laps before giving way to their teammates, but Canada's strategy was for a fast start, followed by the middle skaters going two laps each, before seining in the finisher, with fresher legs, for the homestretch.
It is the second medal in short-track speed skating for Canada, after Charles Hamelin won gold in the men's 1,500-race last week.
The silver medal was a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating day on the short-track for Canada. St-Gelais, a contender for the podium in the women's 1,000-metre event, was knocked to the ice in her heat after contact from an opponent. The fall eliminated her from medal contention. Canada's short-track program director, Yves Hamelin, said later that Canadian officials watched the replay and thought there should have been a disqualification on the contact, but the call was missed.
Then St-Gelais watched in agony from the bowels of the arena as her boyfriend, Charles Hamelin, lost an edge on a corner and fell during the men's 500-metre race. Hamelin won the event in Vancouver and was a gold-medal favourite in Sochi. Though Charles said after that the ice was fine, his father Yves raised concerns about the surface in Sochi, saying Hamelin's two uncharacteristic falls at these Olympics - he also lost his footing in the men's 1,000-metre race - were due to the ice being far more soft and brittle than it should be for short-track.
After seeing Charles fall on a TV screen before getting on the ice for her warm-up, St-Gelais had to quickly collect herself and refocus for the relay, trying to put her own disappointing race and that of Hamelin out of her mind.
She said she could hear an angry Charles Hamelin in the locker room, where he threw his water bottle in frustration.
"When I went out of the room, Charles came in, and I just heard: bang, bang, bang," St-Gelais said. "He was pretty mad… I was really sad for him, because Charles never fails."
After being knocked down in the women's 1,000-metre, St-Gelais said she went out to the parking lot to cool down because she didn't want her frustration to affect the relay less than two hours later.
"I went outside and I was walking, and it was raining, and I was kind of screaming," St-Gelais said. "I was really mad for like 10 minutes, and after that it was done."
The silver medal in the relay was a welcome finish to what was otherwise a difficult day on the track, she said.
"Ending on a good note, so I'm happy for that," St-Gelais said.
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