Canadian long track speed skating sprinters start season this weekend

World champion Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., and Mike Ireland of Winnipeg hope to squash the injury bug while the women’s squad begins a new era as the World Cup season for the sprinters in long track speed skating gets underway this weekend (December 6-7) at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.

Wotherspoon enjoyed another fabulous season in 2002-2003. In the 500-metres, he lost one race all year en route to the World Cup crown, the world sprint title and the gold medal at the world single distance championships. But his season ended with major back trouble for which he still feels the effects nearly nine months later.

"The back is something I’m monitoring very closely," said Wotherspoon, 27, arguably Canada’s most successful international athlete over the past five years. "I don’t want to go through what happened last year again. It still feels sore at times but with massage and therapy I’m able to race normally at this time. In fact training has gone very well."

Duplicating last year’s performances in the 500 is not something Wotherspoon focuses on. His goal is to improve all aspects of his racing.

"I’d like to be more consistent with my starts," he said. "And I had some bad races in the 1,000 metres last year. But my approach is always to take one race at a time and then evaluate how I did."

Ireland also appears recovered from an injury-plagued winter last season. He’d like to regain the form which earned him a world sprint title and a world record in the 1,000 metres in 2001 and challenge his teammate for World Cup gold medals.

Also on the men’s team are James Monson of Winnipeg, Brock Miron of Cornwall, Ont., Mark Nielsen of Calgary and Jason Parker of Yorkton, Sask.

For the first time in 15 years, Catriona Le May Doan won’t be in the Canadian line-up. The double Olympic champion retired last season after a sensational career.

The women’s team for the World Cup in Calgary features two Winnipeg teenagers who enjoyed great success at the junior level and could be gold medal contenders in time for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Shannon Rempel won the overall title at the world junior championships last year which included gold in the 1,000 metres and silver in the 500. The 19-year-old did well in her senior level appearances last year cracking the top-15 in the 500 and 1,000 races at the single distance worlds and placing 14th at the world sprints. In addition she set the world junior record in the 500.

Brittany Schussler, 18, placed fourth overall at the past two world juniors and won the bronze in the 1,500 at last year’s event.

"I'd be happy right now with anything close to my personal best," said Rempel, who’d like to be ranked in the top-10 sprinters in the world at the end of the season. "With Catriona retired, there's a gap in women's sprinting and I know some people are looking at myself and other young skaters to fill it."

Also skating for the women are Krisy Myers of Lloydminster, Sask., Kim Weger of Regina, Sarah Smith of Medicine Hat, Alta., and Danielle Wotherspoon of Red Deer.

Other World Cup stops for the sprinters are December 13-14 at Salt Lake City, January 24-25 at Harbin, China, February 14-15 at Collalbo, Italy, February 20-22 at Inzell, Germany and February 27-29 at Heerenveen, the Netherlands.

The world sprints are January 17-18 in Nagano, Japan and the world single distance championships are March 12-14 in Seoul. The Canadian championships are December 21-22 in Calgary.