Greetings from the 2003 World All-Round Championships

Clara Hughes briefly describes how she and the Canadian team are coping as they prepare to compete in this weekend's World All-Round Championships.

Greetings from Sweden, home of the 2003 World All-Round Championships, land of winter, cold and meatball. Well, to be honest, we haven't had any of the latter as of yet, and too much of the cold winter.

It was early Monday afternoon that we disembarked in the Goteborg Airport, each of us silently praying our skates would arrive alive and well after the long journey from Calgary. As for me I was suffering from a sleeping pill hangover, fuzzy and disgusted by the metal aftertaste- the price of seven hours of lucid slumber on the ocean hopping Air Canada flight. Also in the baggage area was the Dutch professional TVM Team. As they filed lost baggage claims, flabbergasted that their possessions could disappear after such a short trip from Amsterdam, we exited the confines of our last airport for the week into the cold, damp Swedish winter air.

With trees frosted white it felt like being within one of those tacky snow-globes as a light snow fell. It was the beautiful, fresh snow only a close body of water could provide- and with the Baltic Sea marking the land/water border of Goteborg we prepared for the only thing one could do in this situation of tired giddiness: a snowball fight.

Our first victims were each other. Next up the American skaters and coaches who stepped out of the safety of the airport. Finally, and bagless (with the exception of a few lucky skaters who got a bag or two) the TVMers. It was most fun to tackle the pros with our best shots.

I knew soon after that I had overdone my long lobbs as my shoulder began to ache. Yes, this is a world class athlete speaking, fit and ready to skate or ride faster than most, yet unable to lodge some balls of snow across a parking lot without whine-inducing pain. Welcome to the world of sport, where athletes are like trained animals, able to execute our skills in mindlessness yet pathetic when it comes to the most basics of fun!

Soon after we arrived at the hotel we began to hear of American skater, Jen Rodriguez, double Olympic medallist from Salt Lake City, and her dilemma. Her skates were missing in action- last seen unloaded from the tour bus that transported us from Airport to hotel.

It is the athlete's worst nightmare, to lose the tool of his/her trade. Without them we are useless. We are the knight without armour, carpenter without hammer, mother without child...literally lost without them. Especially skates that are moulded and fine tuned for months, years...this feel is something that cannot be duplicated overnight. It is suspected that someone passing by saw the official-looking aluminium suitcase and assumed it was something 'valuable'- which it was but only to one person on the face of the earth. I am sure they hammered it open expecting cash, camera equipment..who knows what. What is worthless to anyone else was Jen's most valuable possession. And there was nothing she could do but have her old boots sent overnight (which means 3 days overseas) and borrow blades. Needless to say it is going to be a rough weekend for her.

Now back to the ice. In the era of indoor, record-breaking ovals, it is rare to deal with the adverse weather that once was the norm in the sport of speed skating. The oval here is a partially-covered facility, with roof and no walls.

The first day of skating was a glorious one. It made me believe that I could enjoy racing outdoors. The sun shone (though not on us because of the roof) and the trees surrounding the track were frosted and glistening in the mild, winter day. It was skating heaven. We had an easy day after traveling and finished our laps with smiles and laughter. The sensation I had was a good one and I began to look forward to the weekend.

The first blow to this new-found love for outdoor winter sport was the sight of my blades. They had completely lost their edges and little did I know how long it was going to take to fix the damage. That evening I sharpened for three frustrating hours and wondered what I was going to do on the weekend when inevitably faced with the same! I put it out of my mind and retired to another night of broken sleep, of the jet-lag sort, and thought of the beauty of the surrounding forest, the fresh air, the birds...actually began to look forward to the next days session.

What I awoke to was the polar opposite of my imagined skating paradise. I admit, I had built it up somewhat after one good day, but to go from that pleasantry to the cold, biting wind and frosted ice the following day was a punch in the stomach for all of us. Not only was the weather bad but we had to go hard, on the second of post-travel days, typically the worst. I stripped an edge completely after only eight laps and resigned myself to skating on it as there was nothing I could do with my sharpening equipment back at the hotel (mental note: bring stones and jig to race!!).

Faces frozen we begrudgingly completed the program. As the other teams arrived, the sun began to shine. There was no helping us as we were frozen, and as each person asked me 'Are you cold??' with a smile I developed the urge to unleash some track rage because it really wasn't funny in my frozen state.

See, Canadian skaters have the reputation of being somewhat spoiled as we train in the perfection of the Olympic Oval when not competing. People call us soft and take every dig they can when they have the chance.

I must admit at this point I was eyeing the Russian coaches trackside, particularly the one with the stereotypical fur hat. It was the biggest one I have seen. And I wanted it. In fact I was ready to do a skate-by and rip it off his head, that's how cold I was. With my shoulder already sore from the snowball fight I thought better and bitterly made my way off the ice.

After another marathon sharpening session and a day out of the cold (we only had a light spin on the bike- INDOORS!!) my memory has softened, my spirit warmed. The more that I think of it the more motivated I become, as I remember days of skating in the frigid Winnipeg air night after night. I think of all the hurricanes, blizzards and downright life-threatening conditions I have raced my bike through for hundreds of kilometres and 3 or 5000 m seems not so bad. I know I have the toughness to survive when others give in and secretly, regretfully, hope for the worst. The colder, windier, frostier the condition, the better my chance to shine. I can't say I like this- just like thinking of the pain of the 5000 m makes me cringe- yet still I thrive in it.

Soon enough we'll see what the weekend has in store for the speed skating world, and soon enough we'll see if the toughest survive!

If my fingers aren't too frozen I'll write more after the weekend...