Canada Dominates 500m & Relay at Sofia World Cup

Canada added four gold medals to its tally, for a total of seven medals at the 5th stop of the Short Track World Cup circuit that was ending today in Bulgaria. Jessica Gregg (Edmonton, AB) won her first ever World Cup gold medal in the 500m, François-Louis Tremblay (Montréal, QC) took his first gold of the season moments later, and both relay teams skated to gold to conclude the day.

Two Canadians were in the women’s 500m final, Gregg and Kalyna Roberge (St-Étienne-de-Lauzon, QC). They were facing Arianna Fontana of Italy and Meng Xiaoxue of China. Gregg, who has one of the fastest starts in the world, used it to her advantage and finished the race in 43.740. She was followed by Fontana in 44.327 and Meng in 45.177. Roberge had an unfortunate fall when she came in contact with Fontana early in the race and wasn’t able to catch up, so she finished 4th. Anne Maltais (Québec, QC) finished 7th after taking third place in the B final.

“I was feeling really good in all my races today, I had some fast times so I was confident going into the final”, explained Gregg. “I had the first position on the line, which always helps, but with Fontana 2nd and Kalyna 3rd, I wanted to go really fast from the start, which I did. There was a bit of bumping behind me at the beginning, which turned out unfortunate for Kalyna, but I just kept going strong and skated to gold. I’ve had a great progression this season, and it’s good to get a gold medal!”

On the men side, François-Louis Tremblay, who had won many medals so far this season, captured the gold for the first time since December 2007, proving to the world that he’s still a major contender for the Olympic podium in the 500m. Tremblay finished the race in 41.237, followed by British skater Jon Eley (41.385) and American Jeff Simon (41.511).

“It was a great day overall, in the quarter final I realised my times were really fast, close to the World Record, so I gave a bit more in the semi, and I was just one hundredth of a second off”, said Tremblay. “In the final there was more at stake, so I wasn’t going for the fast time, it wasn’t worth it. I started a bit slower, but still first, and I accelerated through the race, which kept the others from passing me. Everything was perfect today, my shape, my technique, my blades… I would say it’s 14 months of hard training that are finally being rewarded”, finished the skater, in reference to the fact that he hadn’t touched a World Cup gold medal in 14 months.

The other Canadians in the distance, Olivier Jean (Lachenaie, QC) and François Hamelin (Ste-Julie, QC) were disqualified for impeding In quarter finals and had to settle for 15th and 16th place.

Marc-André Monette (Pointe-aux-Trembles, QC) was the top Canadian in the 1000m, and he finished second of the B final for 6th place overall. Charles Hamelin (Ste-Julie, QC) was eliminated in semi-final for 9th place. Hamelin was leading for the first seven laps of the race, and second with two laps to go, but he lost his balance in the last corner and fell, finishing 5th of his race. Guillaume Bastille (Rivière-du-Loup, QC) was disqualified in quarter final for impeding and settled for 17th position.

On the women’s side, all Canadian athletes were stopped in the quarter finals of the 1000m. Laurie Marceau (Dolbeau, QC), after finishing 2nd of the morning repêchage rounds, finished 3rd of her quarter final heat and 10th place overall, Marie-Ève Drolet (Saguenay, QC) was also third of her race for 9th place overall while Jessica Hewitt (Kamloops, BC) was 16th.

The event concluded with the relay races, and Canadian athletes dominated them. The women’s team took the gold medal when they crossed the finish line in 4:13.510, followed by the Italians in 4:14.966. The American Team took bronze in 4:21.190.

“With the Koreans and Chinese out of the final, we knew we had a shot at gold and that’s what we were going for”, explained Gregg. “It was really between us and the Americans, but their skater fell when she tried to block Kalyna who was trying to pass. We all skated really well and deserved the gold.” This was a first gold medal for the Canadian women since the Montreal World Cup in December 2006.

On the men side, the Canadian men were the strongest and finished the race in 6:46.412, followed by the Chinese in 6:47.825 and the Germans in 6:49.950. The Korean skaters were also in the final but they were disqualified. It is the first time since the 2005 World Short Track Championships that both men and women relay teams get a gold medal at the same competition.

The Canadians are now heading to Dresden, Germany, where they will skate in the last stop of the 2008-09 World Cup Circuit next weekend.