Gabrielle Waddell skates toward Sochi Olympics with gold on her mind

Gabrielle Waddell has a lot to prove.

With five months until this year’s World Championships and less than a year until the Olympic selections, time is short and the stakes are high.

“They only send the best of the best,” she says of the upcoming international competitions. “My goal is to be one of the three (Canadian) girls that are racing.” 

At barely 24, Waddell is the baby of the Canadian women’s national short track speedskating team. But with only three spots to fill for world competition and next year’s Olympic games, Waddell must jockey for a position on a team that already boasts four skaters with Olympic experience.

Last March, she was selected as the fourth member of the World Championship team representing Canada in Shanghai. She was supposed to round out the relay roster, but was sidelined by the team’s coach and did not compete. This is something Waddell hopes to rectify this year.

“I ended up watching the whole competition, which in itself can be a huge
motivator,” she says. “All you want to be doing is racing on that ice.”

Olympic hopeful Gabrielle Waddell, front, and Jessica Gregg, middle, have a morning conditioning skate at Olympic Oval just prior to competing in the Fall Classic.

Photo by Dan MacKenzieWaddell has experienced sharp growth since breaking into the senior ranks two years ago. She competes in three individual distances (500 meter, 1,000 meter and 1,500 meter), and her rankings have increased in every distance.

She closed out the 2010-11 season ranked No. 43 in the 500 meter internationally, but begins the 2012-13 season ranked No. 24 in that event. She also doubled her Canadian ranking, moving from No. 8 to No. 4.

These successes have her coach and former Canadian Champion, Jon Cavar, suggesting that she is primed for the next step.

“She’s definitely in the hunt for an Olympic spot,” he says. “She’s one of the toughest competitors and one of the ones who have a really strong shot at it.”

Continental rift

Geography poses a challenge to Waddell’s hunt too. Calgary boasts a world-class training facility, but most of the national team trains in Montreal. This has the potential to leave a skater from Calgary feeling marginalized.

“She’s aggressive and she’ll fight to get that win. In everything she does, she wants to be the best.” 
-Jessica Gregg, Olympic silver medalist

“Because we don’t have as many elite athletes, it always seems like we are kind of a little brother,” says Cavar.

But he also says that the Calgary facility affords his skaters every opportunity to be up to the challenge.

Waddell embraces that challenge.

“My individual races on the World Cup level,” she says, “will show them how strong I am.”

Cavar echoes the sentiment.

“It’s within reach for her to be in the top three,” he says. “She’s got the skills in all of the distances and she’s a great relay team member.”

Nuptial blitz

Off the ice Waddell tows a full load, pursuing a science degree at the University of Calgary and adjusting to newlywed life with long track skater, Tyler Derraugh, who was forced to take a professional speedskating position in Norway after his funding was cut this year. This means that Derraugh is gone for most of this season.

“It’s not exactly how we wanted to spend our first year of marriage,” she says with a chuckle. “But we don’t want to have any regrets, so we decided that it’s a sacrifice we are going to have to make.”

Waddell says that Derraugh’s being overseas is necessary for both of them to keep skating this year.

Gabrielle Waddell, right, and Jessica Gregg, left, have a practice skate at the Olympic Oval. Waddell hopes to be skating in the 2014 Olympic Games.

Photo by Dan MacKenzieAnd skating this year is very important.

Olympic selections happen in August of 2013, and if the two of them cannot make their respective cuts, it may spell the end for their skating careers.

“Both of us see our Olympic trials as the deciding point,” she says. “Either we make the Olympics or we are probably done.”

Time to shine

The window of opportunity is narrow for a short track speedskater with Olympic hopes. As soon as a career reaches its peak, it can be over. Compared to its long-limbed and endurance-centred cousin, short track demands explosiveness, peak dexterity and razor-sharp focus. This constant tax on the body tends to make short track careers, correspondingly, short.

What that means for Waddell is that if she misses the cut next year, she would have to wait until 2018 — by which time it may be too late.

But determination is Waddell’s calling card. She has never considered herself a prodigy. She says she has had to fight and claw for every success, making success all the sweeter.

“I love the feeling where you didn’t think you could accomplish what you did, where you pushed your boundaries and you surpassed them,” she says.

Her coach and teammates call her a fighter –– one who has worked diligently to get to where she is.

“She’s aggressive and she’ll fight to get that win,” Jessica Gregg, Olympic silver medalist and Waddell’s training partner, says. “In everything she does, she wants to be the best.”

Gregg should know, as she and Waddell have a history. The two have been skating together since they were children.

Waddell is coming into her own and success on the World Cup level has made her hungry. But she knows that there are still several steps between her and Sochi.

“There’s always another level,” she says. “There’s always that next step that I want to be at.”

dmackenzie@cjournal.ca