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Cindy Klassen competes in the women’s 5,000m speed-skating event during the 2010 Winter Olympics at the Richmond Olympic Oval on Feb. 24, 2010.
Team Canada speed skater Cindy Klassen with her bounty of medals at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.
Canadian speed skater Cindy Klassen competes in the women’s 5,000m at the Richmond Olympic Oval, in Richmond, B.C. during the 2010 Olympics.
Cindy Klassen traded in her skates and is now a Calgary Police Service officer.
As 2020 winds to a close, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson profiles Calgary’s sporting icons of the 2000s …
Her rivals could hardly believe their eyes.
Here was speed-skating machine Cindy Klassen, with a jam-packed competition schedule at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, working overtime on the eve of her marquee event.
“I remember being the last person on the ice and other coaches coming up to me like, ‘Do you know you’re racing tomorrow?!? What are you doing training so hard?’ ” Klassen recalled with a chuckle. “But I believed in my coach and I believed he knew what I needed. And that was exactly what I needed. I got that intensity in my legs, and the next day I had the race of my life.”
Klassen’s then-coach, Neal Marshall, heard the comments too.
“People were saying, ‘You’re going to kill her!’ ” he said. “I know it sounds kind of counterintuitive from the outside, but not having enough work in your body to make it respond can be just as bad as doing too much work. So it’s always that fine line of what is the best prep?
“One of Cindy’s talents was her physical strength. She could handle a lot of training — she was just so strong — and when an athlete can do that, then it allows you to give them that kind of stimulus as a preparation for a race and they respond in a positive way.”
Klassen’s powerful skating stride was on display for two weeks in Torino. Ultimately, so too was the strength of her neck.
She made Canadian history with a heavy haul — five medals in total.
Klassen started with bronze in the 3,000m, then silver in the team pursuit. It was after a second-place showing in the 1,000m that she complained to Marshall that she didn’t feel she was at the top of her game.
That gruelling workout — a head-scratcher for some — turned out to be the perfect primer for her golden moment in the 1,500m. Klassen, who was raised in Winnipeg but relocated to Calgary to train with the national team and still calls this area home, crossed the finish line in 1:55.27, close to a second-and-a-half faster than any other competitor.
After another bronze in the 5,000m, IOC president Jacques Rogge proclaimed: “To see Cindy Klassen win five medals, she was definitely the woman of the Games.”
Now 41, Klassen insists there is a lot of credit to go around for her stint in that international sporting spotlight.
Her faith was an important factor. She’d meet family members for dinner after each race. She says Marshall had her peak “at just the right time” and also mentions the support of her teammates and of a young stranger who showed up to watch the 1,500m.
“What we do in speed skating is we’ll usually go to the oval a little early, a few hours before our race and just touch the ice, do a couple of laps and do some excels, some sprinty stuff,” Klassen explained. “So then when it comes time to race, it’s not the first time that we have stepped onto the ice that day.
“So I was on the ice, just kind of doing my thing, and they opened the building to spectators. And I remember seeing this kid come running in. He had a Canadian flag and he was waving it and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s so neat. I wonder if he came all the way from Canada to watch the Games?’ So I finished my ice session and I just skated over to the edge and I called him down from the stands, from where he was sitting. It turned out him and his dad had come from Toronto.
“He showed me his Canadian flag and he had a bunch of signatures on it, and so I signed my name too. And after I skated off, I just thought to myself, ‘I really want to show that kid how much fun the sport of speed skating is.’ That was kind of on the forefront of my mind going into that race.”
After her podium ceremony, Klassen gestured to the boy again, relying on the crowd to help pass her bouquet of flowers up to him.
Years later, they reconnected. He was, by then, a university student.
“And he still had those flowers that I gave him. He had dried them and taken them home from Torino,” Klassen marvelled. “It was just neat thinking that he was my inspiration that day. And hopefully, somehow, I was able to give him a little bit of inspiration, too.”
That’s the sort of aw-shucks comment you expect from Klassen, who had good wheels as a hockey player before the switch to an even faster on-ice pursuit. There’s no swagger, even if she does have a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame and her name engraved on the Lou Marsh Trophy from 2006.
“She’s the type of person that is just so humble and real and just puts her head down and works hard,” said fellow speed-skating all-timer Catriona Le May Doan. “I was (in Torino) as media and it was so great to be a part of that, because she was setting records and it didn’t change her as a person.”
Added Marshall: “Part of her personality and why she was such a joy to work with and such a great teammate is she was always humble. That never changed at all. It didn’t go to her head. She stayed really grounded, and I think that helped her be the best athlete she could be.”
Klassen, who started her hardware collection by claiming bronze in the 3,000m at Salt Lake City in 2002, shares the distinction — with longtime teammate Clara Hughes — of being the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all-time. Each owns six medals.
It’s wild to think Klassen collected five of those during a 14-day whirlwind in Torino. In doing so, she tied the record for the most shiny souvenirs won by any long-track speed skater at a single instalment of the five-ring circus.
“Going into those Games, I really tried to not put any extra pressure on myself,” Klassen said. “People were saying, ‘Oh, you have a chance to win more than one medal.’ But I just thought to myself, ‘If I can go there and do better than I did in Salt Lake City, that would be a great achievement for me.’
“I really didn’t know what to expect. So to come out of it with five medals? And also, to be the flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies, which was such a huge honour? It was incredible to be able to do that.”
Klassen, who works as an officer with Calgary Police Service, is currently on maternity leave after welcoming her first child in January.
Her daughter, Phoebe, will someday understand that mom holds a special place in Olympic history. She has a pile of medals to prove it.
“The thing that’s really special to me is if I go to do a school talk and I get to show them to the kids and let the kids try them on and take pictures with them,” Klassen said. “Something that is a really good reminder to me, when I look at the medals, they’re starting to get worn. The ribbons are creased. You can tell they’ve been worn a lot from people trying them on. And then the medals themselves, some of them have a ding because people have actually dropped them.
“But to me, it’s such a great reminder to think that these medals, they’re wearing down, but what’s really important to me is the things that aren’t wearing down — the friendships that I made throughout my sporting career, the memories I’ve had. Those things are going to last forever.
“So whenever I see them, it’s kind of a reminder to me of what’s most important. That’s my faith first and then family and friends.”
Remember me for …
Jacques Rogge probably put it best. After she won five medals on the speed-skating oval at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, the then-president of the IOC hailed Klassen as “the woman of the Games.”
Oh and another thing …
Klassen is a six-time Olympic medallist, a Canadian record that she shares with cyclist and former speed-skating teammate Clara Hughes.
Staggering stat …
115 — If you include keepsakes from the world championships and World Cup circuit, that’s the total number of international medals that Klassen collected during her career. Whoa.
These days …
You might have spotted Klassen in uniform as a police officer in Calgary, but she is currently on maternity after giving birth to a baby girl, Phoebe.
She said it …
“When I go watch speed-skating races now, the talent is so immense and they’re so strong and they look so graceful and I just think, ‘I used to do that?’ It feels like so long ago.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020