Hamelin, St-Gelais embrace mentor roles in lieu of personal triumph

The team of Charles Hamelin, Samuel Girard, Dion and Cournoyer skate from bronze medal in the 5,000m short track relay.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The goodbye Games for Charles Hamelin and Marianne St-Gelais, the first couple of Canadian short-track speedskating, didn’t exactly go the way they envisioned.

There was a 5,000-metre relay bronze for him Thursday night after three earlier penalties spoiled his individual races, not even that for her after a DQ negated a third-place finish in the women’s relay, along with two other penalties and a quarter-final elimination in her other skates.

Disappointing on a personal level for two of Canada’s greatest Olympians, even as they found solace in helping to nurture two spectacular beginnings for the short-track team’s next generation during the Pyeongchang Games.

Kim Boutin, winner of a silver medal in the women’s 1,000 metres Thursday night after two previous bronze medals, and Samuel Girard, who helped Hamelin to that relay bronze after earlier winning gold in the 1,000, emerged as stars at Gangneung Ice Arena over the past two weeks.

They are very much the future of the Canadian short-track team with Hamelin and St-Gelais set to retire after the upcoming world championships in Montreal, and it’s not a coincidence the two Olympic rookies have been heavily mentored by the two veterans before and during the Games.

In that sense, the results here marked a symbolic changing of the guard.

“I think at the end I can say, ‘Job done,’” said Hamelin, who with five career medals tied Marc Gagnon, Francois-Louis Tremblay and Phil Edwards for the all-time lead among male Canadian Olympians. “The goal was not to bring all golds in every distance, it was to make sure that Team Canada was able to manage any situation in short-track because short-track is a crazy world. It’s exactly what we did.

“Even if we didn’t have all the results we wanted, we were calm, we were positive, we were able to stay on track, stay focused on the goal and we just did it and that’s exactly what happened here in Pyeongchang. We had crazy results. We had bad luck. We had disappointment. But in the end we come back with heads high and we are proud of what we did.”

Boutin, who joined Cindy Klassen (five), Gagnon (three) and Gaetan Boucher (three) as the only Canadians to win three medals at a single Winter Olympics, was Exhibit A on that front.

The 23-year-old from Sherbrooke, Que., received threats on social media from angry South Korean fans after Choi Minjeong’s DQ bumped her up to bronze in the 500, then fought off her tears and fears to claim a bronze four days later in the 1,500.

She would have had a fourth medal too, had she not veered onto the track as a non-competitive skater right at the end of the women’s 3,000-metre relay Tuesday, but bounced back to finish second to Suzanne Schulting of the Netherlands on Thursday. She deserves serious consideration for Canadian flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies.

“Another colour (of medal) so I’m pretty excited about it,” Boutin said, beaming.

Frederic Blackburn, the women’s head coach, praised her toughness and said that earlier this season she struggled to maintain consistency over multiple days of racing. But her mental preparation work with sports psychologist Fabien Abejean really paid off, as she was one of the meet’s steadiest skaters.

“I made a calendar and I crossed off every day because it’s a day that I did and it’s behind me. I feel this really helped me,” she said. “And during my races, not thinking about the other skaters, just thinking about myself and do what I can do. I feel it helps me to focus on my strengths to race.”

Boutin is rooming with St-Gelais at the Games the way Hamelin and Girard are, and the 21-year-old from Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., would have sent off the 33-year-old from St-Julie, Que., with gold in the relay if he hadn’t bumped with a South Korean skater inside the track as he prepared to tag in for the final leg.

Along with Pascal Dion of Riviere-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., and Charle Cournoyer of Boucherville, Que., two other promising young skaters, the Canadians were in the lead with two laps to go but the contact killed Girard’s speed. Hamelin couldn’t push him hard enough to restore it, the Hungarians and Chinese shot past him after the exchange and they settled for bronze.

“At the end I just tried to stay up and finish the race,” said Girard, who didn’t want to try a dangerous pass and risk falling off the podium. “For (Hamelin), it finishes in a good way, a positive way, it’s amazing. He’s got five medals, he equals the best medalists in short-track, so I’m really happy for him.”

Earlier in the night, Girard finished fourth in the 500 while he also ended up fourth in the 1,500, positioning himself well to pick up the mantle from Hamelin, who was happy to close out his last Games with the bronze.

“We gave everything we’ve got to have the gold,” said Hamelin. “We left everything on the ice to make it happen and at that point, when you have that feeling and you know that short-track is a sport that can be cruel, the hit in the middle, it’s unpredictable but it happens, and just being on the podium is a beauty for us.”

Hamelin and St-Gelais provided one of the most captivating moments of the Vancouver Olympics when, after he won gold in the 500, he leaped into the stands and kissed his elated girlfriend. But in this quadrennial, the now-engaged couple decided to no longer watch each other race because of how it stirred them emotionally before their own events.

They’ve been largely separate at these Games, focused on themselves and their teammates rather than each other.

“It was important for me because I feel like short-track is a big family. It’s always been about sharing,” said St-Gelais, a three-time silver medallist who recalled being mentored by Tania Vicent. “I came here to have results but it was important for me, seeing Kim — she’s so smart, she’s so naïve at the same time, she has a lot of energy — I was like, if I can bring something to her, I’m going to do it for sure. It’s been a year that she’s looking at me, she’s looking at me, she’s close to me, she’s asking me advice. She’s not imitating me, but a little bit. It’s just funny.

“Everybody is always like, ‘Oh, you give so much to Kim,’ but I feel like at the end, even for Charles (with Girard), we needed them. I needed Kim to be in my life, to show me something different. We forgot ourselves, because we’re too focused on the result, too focused on what we have to do. And they’re there, so young, so naïve, having so much energy, and we’re like, ‘Man, I was like this before. Can I just enjoy the training even if it’s hard?’ I feel like she gave me a lot. I needed her for the last year.”

And so, St-Gelais and Hamelin exit the Olympic stage without the personal success they wanted and expected in Pyeongchang, but having paid forward their experience onto others, their influence and experience helping to hang five medals around the necks of their teammates.

The storybook end it’s not, but that’s a pretty good way to go out, too.

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