Mathieu Giroux will be no stranger to challenges when he arrives in Sochi for the Winter Olympics.
Just more than a year before the 2010 Vancouver Games, Giroux decided to switch from short track speedskating to long track to fulfil his Olympic dream.
Giroux had competed for Canada at the world junior championships in short track in 2003, 2004 and 2005 but didn’t qualify for the 2006 Olympic team.
An ankle injury sidelined him for most of the 2006-07 season. When he continued have ankle problems manoeuvring around short track’s tight corners after he returned to the sport in 2008, he decided to make the switch.
Giroux competed at six World Cup stops in 2009-10, winning three medals in the team pursuit. The skills he had gained as a short track speedskater competing in pack races prepared him well for the team event.
The rest is history.
He became the first Quebec-born athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in long track since Gaetan Boucher at the Sarajevo Games in 1984. Giroux was competing alongside British Columbian Denny Morrison and Regina’s Lucas Makowsky in the men’s team pursuit.
En route to Sochi, Giroux made another bold decision – to juggle his doctoral studies in pharmacology in Montreal with his career as an elite athlete.
That meant the Pointe-aux-Trembles native would often practise alone because the two national training centres are in Quebec City and Calgary.
He also faced an ultimatum from Speed Skating Canada last year to shelve his studies and do his training at a national centre or be dismissed from the national team and lose his $1,500 monthly stipend.
The 27-year-old pressed on, completing his studies. Now he will have the chance to defend his title in Russia. And he’s pretty proud of that.
“In Sochi, we will attend as Olympic champions,” he said. “It’s true we’ll be defending champions but we’re starting all over again.
“In Vancouver, we were the underdogs. Although I was personally confident, don’t forget that we beat the Americans by just two-tenths of a second. The next year, at the world championships, we finished second, two-tenths behind the Americans.”
In 2010, Giroux and his teammates tried a new strategy that saw them give the skater in front a little push at regular intervals to maintain momentum.
“In my head, I knew this strategy would make a difference,” Giroux said. “It must be in perfect sync to succeed. People thought we had been practising together 24 hours straight. Actually, we were in smaller groups so we only practised together 10 or 15 times.”
Canadians could see another surprise from the team in Sochi.
“We’re thinking about what we can do differently,” Giroux said. “I love to find new ways to do things. We’re confident we can do that.”
Giroux, who is accustomed to practising in the basement of his family’s home in east-end Montreal, is also not shy about looking for new training techniques.
“Innovation helps me to get a leg up,” he said. “You can learn different sports. A lot of research is done in other countries and it helps to see the coming trends in training.”
Giroux doesn’t regret giving up short track for long track.
“There are a lot of things we can’t control in short track,” he explained.
“I love long track because I’m really in total control of the situation. I love the incredible physical effort that we have to make. With short track, my strategy was to head to the front and leave everyone behind. With long track, I can really be myself, leave everything on the ice. That’s what I love.”
That quality may serve him well in Sochi, where the ice does not have a reputation for being fast.
“It’s not a fast ice like in Vancouver,” said Giroux, who is eyeing the podium, possibly in the 1,500-metre individual event. “This is an advantage for me, an ice you have to work hard on. I really like that.”
If speedskating hadn’t worked out, Giroux might have been able to shine at the Summer Olympics.
“I started skating when I was four but I also practised taekwondo at the age of six,” says the black belt. “I was involved in both sports until I was 13.
“I started it again in the last few months for fun,” he said of the martial art. “It helps to let off steam.”
So, how would he like people to remember him as his sports career heads toward the finish line?
”For the perseverance and resilience that got me to Vancouver,“ he said.
“For managing to change sports in 13 months, for starting from scratch and reaching the highest level. For having realized things weren’t working and then taking another path. And for keeping my dream but being able to fulfil it another way.”
Giroux suffered back problems last fall and will be seeking a new challenge after Sochi, more than likely away from the track.
“I’m getting old for a sport where you need to be in a squatting position,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”