Good first day for Short Track World Cup Team in Salt Lake City

Canadian Short Track speed skaters had a good start at the first World Cup of the 2008-09 season, today, in Salt Lake City. Almost all athletes were able to qualify to go straight to the final rounds of races on Saturday and Sunday, only two women will need to go through the repechage, and one man was disqualified in a distance. Both Canadian relay teams also qualified for the semi-final races tomorrow night.

In the first 1500m (this distance is being skated twice in the World Cup), all Canadian athletes qualified for the final rounds. Rémi Beaulieu (Alma, QC) posted the fastest time on the men side, an excellent result for a first career World Cup. Charles Hamelin (Ste-Julie, QC) was also first in his heat, while Olivier Jean (Lachenaie, QC), skating in his first World Cup event in over a year following a serious injury that sidelined him for the entire 07-08 season, was 2nd in his.

On the women side, World Cup rookie Valérie Maltais (La Baie, QC) finished second in her heat to qualify to go straight to the final round tomorrow evening. Marianne St-Gelais (St-Félicien, QC) did the same, while another first time World Cup athlete Marie-Andrée Mendes-Campeau (Montréal, QC) qualified for finishing third in the fastest heat of the day. All six Canadian athletes skating this distance will therefore be able to sleep in Saturday morning before skating in the final session starting at 6pm in Salt Lake City tomorrow.

“When I got here this morning, I was extremely stressed out”, explained Valérie Maltais. “But I told myself to relax, that I had nothing to lose, and once the gun sounded, I became myself again.”

In the 1000m, Canadian athletes were not so lucky. While Michael Gilday (Yellowknife, NT) and François Hamelin (Ste-Julie, QC) both qualified, Gilday by winning both his races and Hamelin finishing second in both occasions, François-Louis Tremblay (Montréal, QC) was disqualified in his first race for impeding. Because of the disqualification, Tremblay will not be able to take part in the repechage on Saturday so he will now have to focus his efforts on his 500m race on Sunday and the relay.

Anne Maltais (Québec, QC) and Jessica Gregg (Edmonton, AB) both won their first 1000m race, before finishing second in their next heat, but that was enough for them to qualify to go straight to tomorrow’s finals. Jessica Hewitt (Langley, BC), another World Cup rookie for the Canadian Team, faced very tough competition in her first heat and will be the only Canadian skater in the repechage tomorrow morning.

In the afternoon, all athletes had to race in their second distance, and the end result was similar. All men qualified to head straight to the finals on Sunday: Tremblay had a great comeback in the 500m, winning both his heats, Charles Hamelin, strong as usual, did the same, and young brother François was second of both his heats. In the second 1500m, Beaulieu once again surprised everyone by skating the fastest time, while Jean and Gilday also won their respective heats.

“I’m really happy with the way things happened,” said Michael Gilday. “I did what I wanted to do today, everything went well. Coming here, we knew what to expect and what strategy to adopt. We had pretty tough races at our Team selection so we were prepared. Now I hope to be able to make an A final and hopefully get a medal this weekend.”

The women won’t all be able to sleep on Sunday, however. In the 500m competition, Gregg and Anne Maltais both qualified, but St-Gelais was third in her first race, forcing her to go through the repechage round Sunday morning if she wants a shot at a medal. It was close in the 1500m, but Valérie Maltais and Mendes-Campeau were able to qualified by finishing third in very fast heats. Jessica Hewitt, fourth of her wave, will have to get up with St-Gelais for the repechage round.

“I’ve been to the World Junior Championships before”, continued Valérie Maltais. “But here, it’s bigger, the girls have a lot more experience. Some of them are quite intimidating, but by qualifying for final rounds in both distances, I proved that I had my place here. My goal was not to go through repechage, so I’ve reached it, and I’m not putting any pressure on myself for the rest, but it would be awesome to make a final!”

Tomorrow, Jessica Hewitt will be in action in the 1000m starting at 10am in Salt Lake City, and all of her teammates will be on the ice at 6pm for the final rounds of the 1500m and the 1000m. Competition continues through Sunday, before the action moves to Vancouver for the 2nd stop of the World Cup circuit October 24-26 at the Pacific Coliseum.