Racing smart the word as short-track team begins Olympic qualifications

MONTREAL – Olivier Jean promises to be more careful during qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics than he was four years ago.

The veteran short-track speed skater cost Canada one of the maximum of three spots per country in the 1,000-metre event at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver by being disqualified at a World Cup race in Montreal ahead of the Olympics.

Canada, a world power in short-track, ended up with three skaters in every event except the men’s 1,000, where they had two. They hope to have a full complement in every race at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

“I skated a bit too confident the first few rounds that season,” Jean said Wednesday. “I’m not going to make that mistake this year.”

The qualifying process begins with the Canadian team trials Aug. 7-18 at its national training base at the Maurice Richard Arena. There will be 16 men and 16 women vying for places on a 10-skater team of five men and five women.

They can secure the quota of three per event at World Cup meets in November in Turin, Italy, and Kolomna, Russia, by placing in the top 32 in the 500- and 1,000-metres races and the top 36 of the 1,500-metres.

It was at that stage in 2009 that Jean had his mishap.

“One of the races I fell on my own and the other was a really bad, not well-prepared pass,” he said. “I was going to do an inside pass and I got disqualified because it wasn’t a smart move at all.”

Jean recovered to help the Canadian squad win gold in the relay to cap a haul of two gold, two silver and a bronze medal in Vancouver.

This time, Yves Hamelin, Canada’s short-track program director, is preaching caution through the qualifying process.

At World Cups, getting through the first two rounds of heats is enough to place in the top 32, which should be routine for the Canadian team.

“We just have to be racing smoothly and pass safely,” said Hamelin, whose sons Charles and Francois are national team members. “Try not to be in a position where a slight contact could play against you, where the officials can sometimes see a penalty.”

The trials will be spread over 12 days to mimic the schedule at the Sochi Games.

Jean said having gaps of two or three days between events will be good preparation for skaters used to World Cups, where they race every day.

“It’s a great idea because when you get to the Games, you have to be able to manage highs and lows, with media attention and being at the Olympic venue and everything,” the Lachenaie, Que., native said.

“Whether you race good or bad, it’s important to come back 48 hours or 72 hours later and still give it your best shot.”

The men should have a veteran team for Sochi, perhaps even the same five who skated at Vancouver of Jean, double gold medallist Charles Hamelin, Francois Hamelin, Francois-Louis Tremblay and Guillaume Bastille.

“We’re mostly between 27 and 29 years old, about 10 years older than the other teams,” said Charles Hamelin. “I think that’s an advantage.

“I don’t see myself as a leader of the team, but I see the team has the experience and confidence to get through anything.”

Marianne St-Gelais is a favourite to make the women’s team after taking silver medals in the 500-metres and the relay in Vancouver.

Valerie Maltais, who set a world record in the 1,000-metres in October, is another. The La Baie, Que., skater won gold at the 2012 world championships in the 3,000-metres, but that is not an Olympic event.

“If we skate well and do smart races, we should have all the spots,” said Maltais. “But it’s never sure until we’ve done it.

“We want to be in the top 30 and not do stupid things like DQ in the first round. Be smooth and smart and it’s going to be fine.”

Other in the running include Vancouver relay medallist Jessica Gregg as well as Jessica Hewitt and Marie-Eve Drolet.

Deciding which skaters will make the team, and which events they will race, is a complex process that won’t be decided entirely at the trials.

There will be three races each at 500, 1,000 and 1,500-metres at the trials, with the top two placings in each race counting towards their final rankings.

The two best at each distance should go, with the rest decided after the Kolomna World Cup by a high performance committee.

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