SOLITUDE

Text courtesy of Clara Highes

A wise man once told me the way to gain perspective is through a period of isolation. For nine days I have been at the training center in Calgary without my team as they set out for an altitude-oriented training camp in the mountains of Utah. The coaches and physiologists decided it would be best for me to remain in Calgary. Contributing to this decision were various elements, the most significant being that I had only returned to the ice less than two weeks prior, and that it would be too taxing a move to train higher in the mountains after a summer of oxygen-laden air, cycling in Quebec. This nine-day period is hardly what I would consider isolation, but still it has garnered me a perspective I feel only separation from the group could allow at this point in time.

Initially when I stepped back on the ice it was like learning how to move on the thin, long razor-sharp blades again. That sensation lasted all of five or six laps, whereupon the athlete and experience in me kicked in and I felt I was ready to train with the girls again. That is, at least, how I felt inside. You can call that ego, I suppose; ego that can get you into trouble if you are not careful.

Coach Xiuli Wang kept me away from the group for that first week, not allowing me to do more than the measly five laps in warm-up as a part of the train of skaters. In their black training suits they looked sleek on the ice like otters in water. Every day I would be separated from the team, sentenced to tedious balancing drills combined with easy laps.

It seemed unfair as I felt physically ready and motivated to skate as fast as the other girls. Girls like Cindy Klassen, Kristina Groves, Tara Risling and Cindy Overland…athletes that had been training in the skating position for months and had progressed slowly to the ice. And there I was, looking like a cyclist on the ice, thinking I could skate with these girls after managing a few laps in the torturous skating position. When you see skaters glide it looks easy, especially when it is something you know you can do. Executing this technique is a whole other level of skill, and with all of my experience even I tend to forget this each time I return to the ice.

Xiuli continued to hold me back. I felt like Bugs Bunny chasing the carrot. Only my carrot was whizzing by me, lap after lap, as I tried in vain to balance on one foot, crouch with my leg out to the right; to the left. It was embarrassing not being able to do these drills properly. My skating muscles were dormant after a summer of pedaling. Xiuli echoed her advice which commenced on day one, 'You have to have good technique skating slow before you go fast. We need to start good technically or you will make bad habits that will follow you all year. I know you can skate fast, but I don't want you to chase.' As I attempted these rudimentary exercises, I came to realize she was right.

The day finally came when I was able to skate with the team. I was told that as soon as my technique fell apart I would have to return to doing drills and those slow, technical laps again. I don't think I have ever focused so much on good technique as in those first few sessions. I wanted so badly to remain with the girls and go fast on the ice. It was what I had dreamed of for months while away. Yet, as I skated, and kept the pace just fine (though I was sitting behind the others for the really fast sets, in their draft, being pulled along) I came to realize that though my technique was okay, I felt like I was chasing. I was going faster than I should at that point of my progression and in doing so not allowing my 'feel' for the ice to develop.

Initially when I was told I had to stay back from the training camp I was worried. Thoughts of skating hundreds of laps, alone, raced through my head. I wanted to be pulled along in the wake of the team, not have to motivate myself to train. I soon came to realize that I actually needed the time on the ice, alone. If I wanted to improve from the season prior, I had to begin on my own terms, not chasing others and feeling like I had to catch up. I came to realize that skating alone was not a sentence; instead it was an opportunity to gain the perspective of who I am as a skater and why I returned to the ice.

Some sessions I have been able to skate with a few of the younger skaters. They have helped me on the days where I felt I needed a team. Other sessions have been solo endeavors where my 'feel' for lap times and solid technique has evolved nicely. I have had the help of former Olympic medalist turned coach, Kevin Overland, who has offered me his wisdom and allowed me to improve each stride I skate.

Though I have not been immersed in isolation, I feel this has been a version of it allowing for me to gain perspective. The Team returns on Sunday and I feel ready to begin skating with the girls; ready to be a contributing part of the black train chugging along in perfect formation around the skating track. As an individual I have found my balance on the blades and a healthy perspective which will allow me to step back in with the team, one stride at a time