By Emilie Medland-Marchen, March 22 2016 —
The Olympic Oval hosted its inaugural international speed skating competition, the Oval Finale, on March 17–20.
Skaters from Japan, Norway, Canada and the United States competed in long track speed skating events at the Oval’s final event of the year.
Four-time Olympic medalist Denny Morrison competed at the event, marking his comeback to the sport after spending the majority of the season off the ice due to injury.
In May, Morrison was involved in a motorcycle accident that put him in the hospital for months with a broken femur and concussion. He raced for the first time since the accident on March 17, taking part in the 1,000-metre event, but was later disqualified for racing without ankle protection.
The competition kicked off with the first men’s and women’s 1,000-metre and 500-metre races. Japan’s Arisa Go took the women’s 500-metre with a time of 38.09 seconds. Canada’s Kaylin Irvine and Anastasia Bucsis took silver and bronze with times of 38.22 and 39.07 seconds, respectively.
Both Bucsis and Irvine have previously represented Canada on the Olympic stage. However, after a falling out with the national team at the start of this season, the two have been training in an independent group.
In the opening day’s men’s 500-metre, Canada’s Jacob Graham beat out two skaters from Japan and the United States for the top spot with a time of 34.96 seconds. This season was Graham’s first year competing as a senior, making him younger than most other skaters on the national development team.
The women’s 1,000-metre event showcased two Canadian women in first and second place, as Irvine and Sochi Olympian Kali Christ posted times of 1:15.75 and 1:16.43 minutes, respectively. Irvine’s sprinting skills shone through in the race’s opener, while Christ’s endurance helped her hold a strong finishing lap.
The Oval Finale is a four-day competition, a long event for skaters competing in each distance. After the hype of day one, the focus is on endurance rather than short bursts of energy, meaning athletes must fight against end-of-season fatigue to make it through each race.
Day two kicked off with the second portion of the women’s 500-metre and the distance events, with the men’s 5,000-metre and women’s 3,000-metre. Irvine earned another second place finish in the 500-metre with a time of 38.40 seconds.
In the men’s 5,000-metre, Canada’s Ben Donnelly placed third with a time of 6:29.98 minutes. At just 19 years old and fresh off of a win at the World Junior Championships in China, Donnelly is establishing himself as one of Canada’s next Olympic speed skating hopefuls.
Isabelle Weidemann and Josie Spence took the top two placements in the women’s 3,000-metre on day two, posting times of 4:05.10 and 4:08.36.
By day three, skaters began to look visibly fatigued. But there were still top finishes posted for Canada, as Jordan Henkelman took the men’s 500-metre with a time of 35.21 seconds, beating out day two winner Jacob Graham.
Irvine won the 1,000-metre again and Canada’s Richard MacLennan took the second men’s 1,000-metre. There were two top finishes in the women’s 5,000-metre, with Weidemann winning the event and her teammate Tori Spence taking second.
Two more races rounded out the competition’s final day. Isabelle Weidemann took home another third place finish in the 1,500-metre. Her results were followed up by a bronze for Ben Donnelly.
The mass start race signalled the end of the Oval’s four-day competition. The event was reintroduced to long track speed skating two years ago in an attempt to improve crowd excitement in televised long track events. The race consists of a large group of skaters racing at the same time, rather than traditional pairs skating in each lane of the 400-metre track.
The Oval’s mass start event was split into junior and senior skaters. Carolina Hiller of British Columbia took the gold medal spot in the women’s division, while Quebec’s Christopher Fiola took gold in the men’s. In the senior event, sisters Josie and Tori Spence earned gold and silver, while Olivier Jean took gold in the men’s division.
The conclusion of the Oval Finale marks the end of the season for Canada’s speed skaters. The Oval ice will be melted for the offseason and reinstalled in early June. Team Canada will take April off of training before beginning the next training cycle in May.