Young & ambitious: Canadian speedskaters looking forward to Vancouver 2010

By Jolanda Abbes

Denny Morrison and Justin Warsylewicz. Two young Canadian speedskaters (1985). One had a great start of the speedskating season last year, but the Olympics were somewhat disappointing. The other one was junior world champion allround in 2004, but he also had to deal with a disappointment when he was diagnosed with a heart problem that same year. But both also Olympic silver medalists on the team pursuit in Turin. An introduction is in place.

It has been a long time since the men of the Canadian allround speedskating team had any significant results internationally. Slowly that seems to change. Marcel Lacroix, who is also Shani Davis’s coach, is preparing a young team for the Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver, including the two talents Denny Morrison en Justin Warsylewicz.

Medal candidate

The best known of the two is probably Denny Morrison. Last year he surprised everyone during the world cups by showing great progress since the previous year. Especially the bronze medal in the 1000 meters and the silver medal in the 1500 meters in Turin seemed to indicate that he was going to be an important candidate for an Olympic medal on these distances.

Synchronized fall

Perhaps at the moment Justin Warsylewicz (whose great grandfather was born in Poland) is best known for his synchronized fall together with Ivan Skobrev in the 5 kilometers during the last world championships allround in Calgary. Without obstructing each other, both went down at almost the exact same time. «I still don’t know what happened. I remember seeing Skobrev go down and not being that startled by it. But when I went to put my foot down right after that, it shot out from underneath me. It shot out so fast, it felt like I had stepped on a block. So I think with the distraction of Skobrev going down I just put my foot down a bit wrong and that caused me to fall.»

Figure skating

Denny Morrison started speedskating when he was three years old. «I was too young for hockey and my parents didn’t want me in figure skating. Also, a friend of my parents was starting a speedskating club.” Until the 2002-2003 season he focused both on short track and long track, after which he decided to concentrate on long track. “In long track it’s just me and the race and there isn’t as much luck or chance on what might happen. This means clearer results where the strongest skaters win, not the luckiest skaters.»

Heart condition

Justin Warsylewicz started speedskating when he was four. «My dad was into running and cycling in the summer and wanted to do something for cross training in the winter. He found out about speedskating and decided to sign up for it and put me in it as well. Back then I also played other sports, like swimming, soccer, and baseball.» Despite a very promising start of his speedskating career with the junior world title allround in 2004, this career almost came to an end before it had really started when he was diagnosed with a heart condition during a regular medical check up. «I was diagnosed with WPW syndrome in October of 2004. I didn’t have any symptoms of an irregularity but when I had a check up with the team doctor he listened to my heart and could hear something was a bit off. So I had some tests done and they showed that I had WPW syndrome. After I was diagnosed I had to have two ablations done in order to fix the problem. So my training had to be altered for a couple of months around that time, but I am 100% healthy now.»

Despite this major setback, he tries to see the positive side of it: «Of course it was hard going through it all, but I think that I learned a lot from it and that has made me a better person as well as a better speedskater.»

There’s more to come…

At the start of the previous season Denny Morrison all of a sudden found himself being able to compete with the top skaters in the world cup circuit. He looks back with satisfaction. «I am very satisfied. However, it has left me hungry for more. I blew away the goals I had set for myself at the start of the season, but never achieved the goals that I put in place for the Olympics. The world championships was a great competition to end off the year.» At this last event of the season Morrison ended up fifth overall and he was the only one who could more or less keep up with Davis and Hedrick in the 1500 meters with a personal best time of 1.42.97.

Many people wonder what went wrong during the Olympics, which may be considered a bit disappointing when you take the rest of the season into consideration. Was it all a little too much, given his young age? Had he put too much effort into the team pursuit? Morrison: «There was a lot of extra time before racing at the Olympics to over-analyze and think about things too much. I was over-confident in the 1000 meters and lost the feel that I had for skating during the season up to that point. I started skating like a junior again. I was much better in the 1500 meters, but maybe too relaxed at the start of the race.» And on the influence of the team pursuit on his performance: «I thought that the team pursuit was a good warm-up for me to get some Olympic races under my belt, to prepare me for my individual races. It may be a good idea to put it at the end of the next Olympics though, so that no one will hold back and there won’t be any need for excuses.»



Justin Warsylewicz looks back on the previous season with mixed feelings. Of course he was one of the five Canadian men who won a silver medal for the team pursuit, which had always been a dream, but he was never able to impress on the individual distances. «I struggled through most of the year at world cups and then I fell at the world allround championships, so those parts of my season have been extremely frustrating.»

Vancouver 2010

However, both skaters have a lot of confidence for the future, especially with the Olympics in 2010 being in Vancouver. The recent past has shown that the home advantage definitely has to be taken into account. Derek Parra en Casey FitzRandolph both won gold in Salt Lake City and Enrico Fabris was very successful in Turin. Like the American people, Canadians tend to forget about speedskating when the Olympics are over, but with the good results of the Canadian team in Turin and the next Olympics being in Vancouver, there’s a chance the media and the audience will stay interested in the sport. Nevertheless Warsylewicz sees advantages and disadvantages: «I know in the past there have been some skaters rise up and do extremely well. I know that having the home crowd advantage is going to help but there is also going to be a lot of expectations for our team to do better than it ever has.»

Still, the Canadian men will want to keep up with the Olympic successes of the Canadian women and they will at least try to improve their own Olympic successes at the team pursuit. These successes have put speedskating on the map in Canada, which can only lead to a positive influence on the development of the sport. Morrison: «If the bar is raised, everyone will reach higher. The successes have brought some new attention, excitement and support for our sport in Canada, and I hope it is only the start of getting the ball rolling.»

To be able to compete at the highest level in four years, a clear path has been outlined. Denny Morrison interrupted his education because of the Olympics in Turin, but is planning to graduate before he retires from speedskating. «My plan is to continue training and competing like I always have. I think 2010 will be a great Olympics for me. Of course anything can happen, it is a long way down the road, but I’m on the right track.» He plans to keep focusing on the 1500 meters, but together with coach Lacroix a program has been developed in which his specialization on the 1500 meters will help improve all aspects of his skating. Justin Warsylewicz is a specialist on the longer distances, so he will be focusing on the 5 kilometers and the 10 kilometers, but would also like to concentrate more on the 1500 meters. By focusing more on the shorter distances he hopes to improve his longer distances «My short term goals are to skate faster times and get into the A group and stay there in the world cups. My long term goals are to be on the podium at the world cups and world allrounds. I think that I’m on the right track for Vancouver 2010. Four years is a long time and anything can happen.» Lacroix: «Both of them are still very young and need to continue on developing their on ice technique and strategies. Obviously both of them have some strengths and weaknesses and it will be imperative to make sure that they will keep on focusing on their weaknesses and not just on enhancing their strength. At the same time they need to understand and accept the fact that they have a lot of work in front of them before becoming an Olympic champion. As for Denny: even if he made a significant jump the past season we still have a lot of work in front of us before Denny becomes a complete skater that will be able to produce excellent performances on an ongoing basis.»

Lacroix

It is obvious Lacroix is an important person on their path towards the Olympics in Vancouver. Both indicate he has played a major part in their successes. He knows exactly when they should do a little extra work or when they should take it slower and on top of that he’s not only able to prepare them physically, but mentally as well. Besides Lacroix, having Shani Davis on their team is of great importance as well. Morrison: «Shani is a very strong skater and an excellent teammate to be able to train with. We always do the best we can to push each other to do better.»

Idols

When they are asked about their examples in speedskating, Denny Morrison keeps it closer to home than Justin Warsylewicz. «Every skater on the world cup circuit can be used as an example for one area of technical excellence or another. My favorites are Shani Davis for his rhythm, Arne Dankers for his consistency, and Jeremy Wotherspoon for his power.» Warsylewicz: «Growing up I remember watching Koss in the 1994 Olympics and Romme in the 1998 Olympics and wanting to be like those guys. I thought they both looked so strong when they skated.»

Ups and downs

So despite their still short career both Denny Morrison and Justin Warsylewicz can look back upon some ups and downs. For both their silver Olympic medal in the team pursuit in Turin is the absolute highlight and Morrison adds his 1500 meters during the world championships allround, when he finished third after Davis and Hedrick. «Both gave me just a taste of what I want more of. And even though I would like to forget about my Olympic 1000 meters as soon as possible, I still don’t want to forget any of my poorer experiences in skating, because those are the ones that I can learn from the most.» Warsylewicz: «The one thing I want to forget as soon as possible is falling at the world allrounds. As soon as I felt myself falling I felt embarrassed because having that skater in the other lane fall shouldn’t have affected me.»

All in all it’s a duo that needs to be taken into account for the years to come, both at the individual distances and the allround events. Especially Morrison’s previous season indicates a very promising future. At the start of the season he skated a personal best time of 1.46.83 in the 1500 meters and eventually ended up with a 1.42.97 at the end of the season. This enormous progress of almost four seconds shows there may still be a lot more to come. «I hope to continue improving my 1500 meters, and believe that opening in 22.9, then doing laps of 24.9, 25.9 and 26.9 will be possible eventually. One day.»

Personal bests:

Denny Morrison
500 meters: 35.34
1000 meters: 1.08.03
1500 meters: 1.42.97
5000 meters: 6.24.13
10.000 meters: 13.45.14

Justin Warsylewicz:
500 meters: 37.13
1000 meters: 1.10.88
1500 meters: 1.45.95
5000 meters: 6.20.04
10.000 meters: 13.28.21