It was not until the very last day of speed skating competition at the Olympic Games in Vancouver that the Canadian men’s long track team claimed their first gold medal, after they had defeated Team USA in the Team Pursuit final, but it turned out to be an omen for another Olympic final the very next day, in which Team USA once again had to admit defeat against the Canadian Olympic team, this time in a historic hockey final. Lucas Makowsky, Mathieu Giroux, Denny Morrison and their coach Marcel Lacroix reflect on the two days of Olympic Team Pursuit competition, the much debated “secret push”, and other new Team Pursuit strategies.
By Jolanda Abbes
The 2009/2010 season did not even start out that great for the Canadian men’s Team Pursuit team. Where the Canadian women performed outstanding at the first World Cups of the season, with two gold medals and one silver medal, the men seemed to struggle at the first Team Pursuit World Cup, in Heerenveen, in which they finished 8th. After that, results started to improve though, with a silver medal in Calgary and a bronze medal in Salt Lake City, which seemed to indicate that maybe there would be more in store for them as the season progressed.
As opposed to the first Olympic Team Pursuit competition, four years ago in Torino, when standings in the first rounds were based on the times skated by the teams, in Vancouver it was all about beating your pair, which made for some very exciting battles to watch. In the first round, the quarterfinals, Canada skated in the first heat, against Team Italy, defending Olympic champions in this event. For Canada, Lucas Makowsky, Mathieu Giroux and Denny Morrison skated against Matteo Anesi, Enrico Fabris and Luca Stefani. Canada’s 3:42.38 proved to be a new Olympic record at the time, and was fast enough to beat Italy’s 3:46.35. Morrison, who led four of the eight laps in each Team Pursuit race, reflects on their opponent in the quarterfinals: “We weren’t sure what to expect in the race against Italy. This was the same team we lost to in 2006 in the finals and we didn’t want to underestimate them. With the crowd on our side, it was easy to tell we were gaining a big lead early in the race. Marcel held a lap board to show us if we were ahead or behind and by how much. At first glance, I wasn’t sure if he’d made a mistake or not!” And Makowsky adds: “The coolest thing about the quarterfinal was that it felt like a training race. We were so relaxed going into that race and we knew exactly what we needed to do. We started fast, we listened to our coach, and we relaxed in the last two laps when we knew we were well ahead of the Italians.” Giroux: “The strategy for the quarter- and semifinals and the final were the exact same, consisting of Denny starting with two laps and finishing with two laps and me and Lucas doing two laps each in the middle. The quarterfinal started a bit too fast on the first two laps but the rest of the race was perfect.”
In the semifinals Team Canada was up against Team Norway, that had just defeated the Koreans in their quarterfinal. Makowsky, Giroux and Morrison raced to another Olympic record against Håvard Bøkko, Henrik Christiansen and Fredrik van der Horst. This time Canada needed 3:42.22 to complete the distance, 1.22 seconds faster than Norway. Makowsky: “The semifinal was a little more intense than the quarterfinal, but again we knew we were going to have to start strong to have any chance against the Norwegians. Again, we started fast and got out to an early lead, we built that lead as much as we could, then just held on for the last four laps.” Morrison: “In the first round, we decided my first pull was a bit too fast and it drained us too much at the end of the race. So the plan for the semifinal was for me to slow down a little. By going a few tenths of a second slower per lap at the start of the race, we saved a few tenths at the end of the race and actually ended up with a faster time, breaking our Olympic record from the quarters.” And Giroux adds: “The semi was a really good race, good pacing, good strategy and a good effort from the three skaters. We were the only team I think that used the same skaters for both rounds on the first day, so we were even more proud.”
In the final, which was raced the next day, Makowsky, Giroux and Morrison saw themselves up against Team USA, with Brian Hansen, Chad Hedrick and Jonathan Kuck, and this final turned out to be the most exciting and tightest ones of Team Canada’s Olympic races, with only a 0.21 second time difference after crossing the finish line (3:41.37 versus 3:41.58). Makowsky reflects on their opponent in the final round: “It was awesome to race against the Americans. They had raced some fast pursuits leading up to the Olympics and they had defeated the favourites, the Netherlands, in the semifinal round. If there was one team to beat for the gold, it was the Americans.” Team Canada started their race fast, and quickly built up a comfortable lead, but saw that lead decrease as the race progressed. Morrison looks back: “I attacked the first lap slightly more than in the semi and built up a 0.7 lead on the US. The crowd was going insane. It’s the first time I’ve experienced a building louder than the Thialf. Every half lap, the roar would come down a bit as the crowd waited to react to the split times. I could feel the emotion of the crowd’s cheer change when we gained time vs lost time. Marcel’s lap board was there to remind us once per lap how we were doing, but the crowd told the story just as well.”
Even though in the end the 0.21 second time difference was fast enough to claim the gold medal, Giroux admits to the fact that the race itself wasn’t perfect: “The final wasn’t the best race possible. The crowd and the excitement of a gold medal race at the end of an amazing journey for Canada at the Olympics probably pumped us up too much. We started the race way too fast, so we blew up pretty bad in the end. But we got saved by the push in the end, literally carrying Denny to the finish line and beating the US by 0,21 seconds. Overall, we were not the best team on paper compared to the Dutch, Norwegians or Americans, but we like to think that we were a bit lucky and smarter coming with a new strategy for the Olympics, and that probably made the difference.”
Part of this new strategy was the before-mentioned push, which most teams had already been using, but never as an active way to transfer energy during a Team Pursuit race. Makowsky explains: “The whole idea behind the ‘push’ was to maximize our speed and to be the most efficient, as a team, throughout the entire race. If somebody was running up on the person in front or if somebody had a little extra energy while at the back, they would simply push that energy up to the person in front of them. Many teams have used the push at certain points in the Team Pursuit in the past; we just simply made it a component of the entire race. Marcel was the mastermind behind this idea because it took a lot of practice to execute it really well.” Giroux elaborates on why it took quite some time to be able to use the push to its fullest extent: “In order to push, you need to be able to skate in perfect synchronization, if not the risk of falling by touching the other skaters is very high. An advantage of using the push systematically on every straight is to allow the front skater to use less energy to pull and extend his lead to two laps, which in the end cuts one exchange and saves more time.”
As said, crucial for this new strategy was coach Marcel Lacroix. Giroux: “Marcel is the brains behind all the new strategies we had for the Olympics. We have to give him credit to come up with the idea of the push and the strategy of doing a two laps lead to minimize the number of exchanges. Marcel was a really good motivator for the team and a good communicator that helped the team stay together. On the ice, Marcel and Ingrid had a new system for the Olympics to communicate information during the race. It consisted of two lap boards and a system of colour cards and symbols. It was really important to communicate that way to know what was happening in the race and because the noise was crazy.”
Lacroix, who also was the mastermind behind the men’s silver medal in the Team Pursuit at the Olympics in Torino, reflects on his role within the team: “I’ve always been the type of coach looking at finding ways to get an edge on the competition. When I think back, that’s how I came up with some very specific strategies for the Team Pursuit in Torino. At that point in time, all teams were pretty much sharing the same amount of laps, where for my team I had skaters pulling two lappers and some one lappers. I pretty much introduced the idea of customizing a specific strategy according to the players on hand. You have to remember that going into that Olympic season, Canada had never ranked better than 5th in any Team Pursuit event and ended up with silver at the Games. As for the ‘push’ that I have introduced at the Vancouver Games, it was something that I knew would give us an edge if we were to execute it like I envisioned it. The skaters at first weren’t too certain of its effectiveness but kudos to the skaters for trusting me in its learning process. How effective was it? Well, we won gold with using only three skaters through three rounds. That’s how effective it was.”
Besides Sweden, Team Canada was the only team that skated all their Olympic races with the same three skaters, who each had their own specific role within the team, based on their individual strengths. Morrison: “A good Team Pursuit team is usually comprised of skaters who are good in both the 1500m and 5000m, and Lucas and I skated both of these races at the Games, and Giroux skated the 1500m. Although our individual results in these races don't make obvious one superpower teammate (Netherlands: Sven; Norway: Bøkko; Korea: Seung-Hoon Lee; Italy: Fabris; USA: Hedrick; et cetera), we used a strategy that most efficiently utilized all of the members’ strengths on our team. I got us up to speed quickly, Lucas was supposed to maintain, and then Giroux would attack the pace and bring it back down, if required.” Makowsky: “Over the last few years, I think everyone has seen what our individual strengths are – it’s no secret. Denny can build speed so well and so efficiently in the first couple of laps of a race. I am able to maintain that speed for the next two laps with more of an endurance background, and although it would take Mathieu a little extra energy to accelerate in the first few laps, he can always push the pace in the 5th and 6th laps if we needed a little bit of a boost in speed. After that, it was Mathieu’s and my job to push Denny to the finish line. Individually, we may not have been the strongest three skaters on paper. But as a team, we focused on each one of our strengths to put together one of the strongest teams on the ice.” And Giroux adds: “The team strength was for sure good communication that started in the summer prior to the Games when we sat down and evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of everyone to have an idea of everyone’s capability. On the ice, a strength that Canada has on a lot of other countries is the ability to skate synchronized and as one at all times. We didn’t have to work too hard on it, it just happened we were skating a bit similar and that we could adapt fast. Denny was our star and best skater on the team, so we had to use him more to maximize his utility to the team. He was starting the race because it’s easy for him to get speed as well as leading half of the race. Lucas is the glue of the team because of his leadership and attitude and because he has the best overall ability in endurance and speed. And with my short track background, it was easy for me to skate in a train and use the push strategy and I have the strength to be in the back for the last two laps and not get dropped.”
So even though individually Team Canada may not have consisted of the strongest skaters on paper, they did manage to forge a strong collective with a couple of smart new strategies, making them a true force to be reckoned with. Where some countries may have underestimated the importance of training elaborately for this specific event, Team Canada stepped onto the Olympic ice prepared and ready to skate their best races possible. And with such a young team – at age 24 at the time these were Morrison’s second Olympic Games; for Giroux (24 at the time) and Makowsky (22 at the time) it was their Olympic debut – who knows what the future has in store for them, both as a team and individually...