Canada’s long track speed skating team will be a force once again in 2002-2003

Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg, Canada’s first medallist at the 2002 Olympics, isn’t feeling the effects of the post-Games blahs in preparation for the opening long track speed skating World Cup event here this weekend.

The 23-year-old is one of the fastest rising young stars in international speed skating. Last season, in addition to her bronze in the 3,000-metre and two fourth place finishes in Salt Lake City, she posted Canada’s best showing in 26 years at the world all around championships finishing second overall. She headed to Europe early this season and has trained in the Netherlands and Germany over the past three weeks.

"For once I won’t feel jet-lagged at the first World Cup of the season," said Klassen, who races the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 metre events. "It should be a good indicator of how the season will go. I’m very excited now that I’m here. I’ve improved very quickly over the past two years but now I’m at a level where just making small gains is going to be very hard."

She has tough opponents led by the German 1-2 punch of double Olympic champion Claudia Pechstein and world and Olympic champion Anni Friesinger. Double Olympic bronze medallist Jennifer Rodriguez of the U.S, and Dutch Olympic silver medallist Renate Groenewold are also in the thick of the battle.

Klassen’s off-season training didn’t go as smoothly as expected. She injured her left foot this summer while jogging. It kept her on crutches and off the ice for three weeks. "It still hurts but it doesn’t affect my skating anymore."

Along with Klassen on the women’s all around team are Olympic bronze medallists Clara Hughes of Winnipeg, Tara Risling of Medicine Hat, Alta., Michèle D’Amours of Ste-Foy and Kristina Groves of Ottawa.

The men’s side is led by Dustin Molicki of Calgary, who enjoyed a breakthrough season last winter with a gold, silver and fourth place overall on the World Cup circuit in the 1,500. He is joined by Philippe Marois of Ste-Foy, Que., Arne Dankers of Calgary, Steven Elm of Red Deer, Alta., Jason Parker of Yorkton, Sask., Jamie Ivey of Ottawa, Kevin Marshall of Coquitlam, B.C., and Mark Knoll of Regina.

After Hamar, there are all around World Cup events the following two weekends in Erfurt, Germany and Heerenveen, the Netherlands. The world championships are February 7-9 in Gothenburg, Sweden, the World Cup final March 7-9 in Heerenveen and the world single distance championships March 14-16 in Berlin. The Canadian championships are January 3-6 in Calgary.

The sprint team featuring Olympic champion Catriona Le May Doan of Saskatoon and World Cup champion Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., starts its World Cup season December 7-8 in Nagano, Japan.

A season preview on that squad will be filed later this month.