Charles Hamelin hasn’t just come to Sochi to compete. The short-track speed skater’s mind and body have practically been re-engineered for these Olympics.
After winning two gold medals in Vancouver in 2010, Hamelin and his coaching team knew they were just scratching the surface of his immense talent. So they set about to reconstruct Hamelin’s approach to racing – making him stronger on his skates, more patient under pressure, smarter with strategy, and capable of winning under all types of conditions.
The goal was pretty much to make Charles Hamelin invincible.
And it may be working.
On Monday, when Canada collected three more medals – climbing to the top of the standings at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games with a total of three gold, three silver and a bronze – Hamelin’s gold in the short-track 1,500-metres stood out for what it said about Canadian determination and ingenuity.
Hamelin could have rested on his laurels after the Vancouver Olympics. He could have cruised to at least a medal or two in Sochi on sheer talent alone. Instead, Team Hamelin tore up the blueprint that had already made it successful, and started working on perfecting his racing.
It showed Monday, when Hamelin, after leading early, fell to third place at the mid-point of the 13.5-lap race. A younger Hamelin might have reacted immediately, pumped up the aggression and tried to yank back the lead. The new Hamelin was too clever. He waited, kept pace, then pounced.
In a move that seemed impossible for the chaotic, crash-and-bang world of short-track speed skating, where athletes often collide and spin out of control, Hamelin found an opening while rounding a corner, and effortlessly glided in front of two other skaters. Back in first. No big deal.
It’s what his coach referred to as a new-found “finesse” Hamelin has. He described it as being able to “calm” himself during races.
Before, when he was getting passed, “I was trying to get back right away, and [burning] too much energy to get back in front,” he said. “Now, I’m more able to control myself, to do smart moves, easy moves – and that costs me less energy.”
Hamelin is something to watch at these Olympics. He sits on the cusp of Canadian history, with the chance to become the nation’s most-decorated Olympian. Long-track speed-skater Cindy Klassen and speed-skater/cyclist Clara Hughes share the record, with six medals.
With Monday’s gold, Hamelin has four, including gold in the 500 metres and 5,000 relay in Vancouver four years ago, and silver in the 5,000 relay at the 2006 Turin Games. One more victory in his remaining three events will also make him the only Canadian to win more than three gold.
It’s something Hamelin said he isn’t thinking about. Though athletes are entitled to bask when they win a medal, Hamelin said after the race he planned to hit the pillow early.
“Tomorrow, I’m on the ice at 8 in the morning,” he said, describing how the focus shifts to his next medal bid a few days from now.
It’s that sort of intensity the Hamelin camp has honed coming into Sochi. He knew how to win in 2010. Now, he’s figuring out how to own races.
“Compared to Vancouver, where he was just a machine, just hammering off the front; now, he’s got a little more finesse, he’s got a little more savvy, he’s got a little more feel. So he’s more complete,” coach Derrick Campbell said.
The Canadian’s time of 2 minutes 14.985 seconds was enough to edge China’s Han Tianyu (2:15.055) who won silver, and Russia’s Victor An (2:15.062), who took bronze.
“In the past, Charles could get rattled. But he stayed really calm, he stayed composed, he got his speed back and he started to pass everyone by again.”
When asked what has made Hamilton even more lethal at these Olympics, his father, who is also the short-track team’s director, said it had to do with training. “Volume,” Yves Hamelin said – as in skating, skating and more skating.
Charles Hamelin spent nearly two more months on the ice in the past year, training twice a day, than he did before Vancouver.
Put that together with his unique ability to understand and see opportunity amid the chaos of a short-track race, and Yves believes his son is better than ever.
“The 1,500-metre race in short track is a killing race,” Yves said, since it is neither sprint nor endurance, but a brutal combination of both. “He had a perfect reading of the race.”
For all the minute tweaks Hamelin has made to his game, one thing didn’t change Monday.
After crossing the finish line, he draped himself in the Canadian flag for a victory lap, greeted his coaches, then climbed atop the padded boards to kiss his girlfriend, fellow speed skater Marianne St-Gelais.
It was a scene reminiscent of their emotional embrace after his gold-medal win in the 500-metres in Vancouver, an enduring image that captured the hearts of Canadians.
“We know how it’s going to happen,” St-Gelais said of their go-to celebration. “If we can see each other, if we have eye contact, we’re done. We have to kiss each other, we have to hug each other.”
St-Gelais said she was glad Hamelin first skated a lap with the flag, before coming over to re-enact their famous moment.
“I was really happy he did the big circle before coming to me,” she said. “I was crying.”