Alison Desmarais won a bronze medal skating in a relay competition for Canada at the first short track speed skating World Cup in Calgary. Olympic Oval Calgary/Facebook photo

Vanderhoof speed skater makes international debut

Alison Desmarais earned a bronze medal in her first short track speed skating World Cup

Vanderhoof local Alison Desmarais has spent the last two weekends competing in her first two international World Cup competitions for short track speed skating.

Desmarais joined Team Canada’s National Development Team for short track speed skating last year and made her international debut in Calgary in the first World Cup event of the season on Nov. 2-4.

It is the beginning of a new four-year Olympic cycle for Canada’s speed skaters, and that means it’s time to develop skills and work on building a new team before the next Winter Olympics. This means Canada is sending several of its up-and-coming speed skaters, like Desmarais, to international competitions.

International competitions are particularly important, says Desmarais, because racers from other countries have different styles of skating. “I didn’t know what to expect at all, because I’d never raced anyone from anywhere else. But I think I sort of surprised myself with how much I did accomplish in my first World Cup,” she says, adding: “We saw a lot of things I still need to work on when competing against other countries.”

Journey to World Cup

One of only two Team Canada/National Development Team skaters from B.C., Desmarais has been speed skating since she was eight years old. At the time, her older sister was playing hockey with a boys’ team, as there wasn’t a girls’ team for her to play on. But when she reached the age that hockey became more of a contact sport, her parents pulled her out, worrying she might end up injured. In lieu of hockey, she decided she wanted to try long track speed skating. Her family, along with another local family, started the Vanderhoof Speed Skating Club.

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Unlike her older sister, Desmarais preferred short track speed skating. But there was only so much she could do to accomplish her dreams in Vanderhoof.

And so, a week following her high school graduation, she moved to Calgary to train at the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary, the high-performance speed skating training centre for Western Canada, and home of Canada’s long track speed skating team. It was also her first step toward Canada’s short track team.

Canada’s short track speed skating team trains together in Montreal, and to get there, Western Canadian athletes must first pass through the Calgary facility and receive an invitation to head east.

Although Desmarais made the development team last year, she did not make the move to Montreal until last month, in October 2018.

She was attending university in Calgary as she trained, but eventually, she came to the decision to shift her focus to her sport, and return to Calgary later to complete her degree. Desmarais says she only had a few short track female training partners in the facility. Although they were all about the same ability, if one person was sick, for example, then they can’t practice relays or races as well as they could with the full team. To help make up for this, they would often train with younger male skaters at the facility.

In the end, her decision to move to Montreal, where she was the only member of the National and Development teams practising from outside the city, came just weeks before her international debut.

International debut

Five of the six female skaters sent to the first World Cup in Calgary made their international debut in the competition, which ran from Nov. 2-4.

Just weeks after moving to Montreal, Desmarais was back at the oval she’d spent years training on. She raced in the 500m, 1,000m, and the relay competition.

Desmarais made it to the quarterfinals in both the 500m and 1,000m races, but fell during the 500m race and failed to move further in the 1,000m race. In the relay, she helped the team advance to the quarter finals, where another skater took over from her. The team came in third, earning Desmarais her first World Cup medal.

Although she’s proud of what she accomplished in her first World Cup, she says they found “lots” for her to work on going forward, in order to become a better competitor in international competitions.

Desmarais also competed in her second World Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah, from Nov. 9-11, but received a penalty in her 1000m race and did not qualify for the quarterfinals in her 500m race, coming third in her heat.

Although she was selected to go to the first two World Cup competitions in North America, Desmarais doesn’t know if she’ll be selected to go to the competitions in Asia or Europe this season.

Canada is sending a team of six female skaters to each of the competitions, which typically take place with two in North America, two in Asia and two in Europe, out of the eight competing skaters they have in Montreal.

Desmarais says a slightly different team will be sent to each of the competitions, to allow them all a chance to practice and compete on the international level, as the team is built for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

She says racing her first World Cup was nerve-wracking, but also exciting. Although she knows there are things she needs to work on, she says she raced well and she’s looking forward to improving.

Crushing the competition – and watermelons

Desmarais is dedicated to her sport and to keeping up her athletic ability.

When she found herself frequently pulling her groin muscle off the start of her 500m races, a race she particularly enjoys, she decided to solve the problem.

Pulling her groin so often forced her to compete in several tournaments with a minor injury, making it more difficult for her to compete in one of her favourite races. When it happened during the 2017 Olympic Trials in Montreal, Desmarais finally decided enough was enough.

When she returned to Calgary, she went to her weight coach and asked if her could help her prevent the injury. So he put her on an inner-thigh strengthening program.

“This program – it sucks, it’s awful,” says Desmarais. “The exercises aren’t fun at all, and you hurt for like two days afterward.”

To encourage herself to keep doing the exercises she hated, Desmarais set a goal for herself in September 2017: she wanted her thighs to become strong enough to crush a watermelon. By the time watermelon season came around again in May 2018, she was ready.

Desmarais had a friend film her crushing a watermelon with her thighs and shared it to Instagram. Now, she says, “every time someone talks to me now they’re like, ‘You crushed a watermelon?’ and I’m like, ‘How did you see that?’”

Even after reaching her goal, Desmarais still does the exercises, if a little less often, to maintain her new strength. After all, she isn’t the type to give up easily.

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