Just how hard it is - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

When getting back on the ice in the fall it’s always a shock to the system to skate again. As speed skaters, we spend spring and summer building a base that will last the fall and winter, when most of our time is spent on the ice. It always feels strange to skate again, and when trying to solve technical ‘problems’ it is easy to spend the first few months frustrated and unable to remember what it feels like to skate with effortless ease. The feeling of floating on ice is an elusive one, and easy speed is an often unattainable entity that simply happens when the body is ready, or the stars are aligned, or both.

Today, like many other Saturdays in the fall, I spent over seven hours in the depths of the oval. Each Saturday we have Saturday Morning Races, sort of practice runs for that are thrown into our gruelling training blocks like salt into a painful wound. As the sun shone its last gasps of warmth on the leafless trees outside, I warmed-up, raced, warmed-down, warmed-up, raced, warmed down, did some training and finally, gratefully, stepped out into the sunshine.

For some idiotic reason, I thought it would be easier to ride the stationary bike for an hour beside the 400m oval instead of getting some fresh air. I thought instead of going home and spending the five minutes it would take to get dressed for a spin outside, it would be more time-efficient to hop on the dreaded monarch. During this hour I was entertained by a packed session of public skating, and if there was any method to my madness, I can only say that perhaps it was a sort of subconscious invitation for a perspective check.

You see, I’ve been beating myself up a little bit since getting back on the ice. I have this idea, like all skaters do, as to what the perfect technique is, and I am convinced that I can master it in time for the Olympics in February. By doing this I have, in turn, made my life very difficult by a) trying too hard, b) skating really tight and c) doing exactly the opposite of what logically leads to beautiful skating technique. Because I have not been able to live up to my brain’s ideals I’ve begun to feel frustrated and confused. I can’t even remember what I used to skate like (often times wondering how I have skated the fast times I have in the past) and, of course, this leads me to trying even harder and moving further and further away from the logical notion of just letting all the training and technical work happen through me.

Anyway, this leads me back to public skating, and perspective.

For an hour I watched hundreds of Calgarians, all shapes, sizes, ages, gender and ethnic backgrounds, attempt to skate. Families donned their traditional ethnic dress, save for the skates strapped to their feet; kids seemingly too small to walk shuffled along the ice, thankfully wearing helmets and other body armour; parents forgot to take skate guards off before that first push off, the exact moment their kids were supposed to look at them as gliding heroes, only to be smack on their rear-end in the blink of an eye; people who have obviously never been on blades before did their first lap, clutching the bumpers and after 15 minutes of torture, leaving the ice fatigued yet thrilled.

These people, each one of them, seemed to be filled with happiness and were giddy with excitement as they did their rounds. It is fun to skate and the public showed me that. Because I am skating at the highest levels, it is easy to forget that it is an activity that should be fun!

What I also saw was exactly what my brain needed to see: it is really, really hard to skate. I began to think of how easy we, the speed skaters, must make it look. I realized that because I am surrounded by world-class skaters, I had lost the perspective of what a gift we all have. Yes, there are improvements that can be made, but really, come on…

I left the oval, hopped on my commuter bike to ride home, and was already thinking about laps our next session on the ice. I can’t wait to forget about all the cues my body and brain are fed-up with trying to perfect, and just skate.

Come to think of it, my best races are just that. I go out, and I just skate.