How harnessing short-track chaos propelled Samuel Girard to Olympic gold

Arash Madani explains how Kim Boutin and Samuel Girard did Canada proud when they picked up two medals on day eight at the Winter Olympics.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The madness of short-track speedskating is such that when the second semifinal for the men’s 1,000 metres ended Saturday night, Samuel Girard was last in the group, literally bumped by teammate and close friend Charles Hamelin out of a spot in the final. Initial results in the sport have, of course, the staying power of ice in a desert, and so as the two stood off to the side talking things over and watching the screen, they both knew it was far from over.

The veteran Hamelin ended up being penalized for impeding, propelling Olympic rookie Girard into the final, which he won with a strong wire-to-wire to skate that made his first Games medal a golden one. The 21-year-old from Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., comfortably beat American John-Henry Krueger, the duo out in front of a huge crash in the penultimate lap that wiped out the rest of the field.

Seo Yira, the South Korean skater with whom Hamelin initially bumped with in the semifinals, ended up claiming the bronze, underlining the narrow margin between disappointment and the podium.

"This is short-track," Girard said, both embracing and surrendering to the chaos, "things happen."

They certainly did for Girard, who ended up fourth in the men’s 1,500 earlier this week and whose goal was to share a podium with Hamelin. The 33-year-old was thinking the same thing, and thought both he and Girard would be in position to advance until some contact with Seo left the Canadians staring up at the board, waiting for the referees to determine their fates.

"Sam and the Korean tried to pass on me, we hit each other’s skates, got unbalanced in that straightaway that led me to go really wide in that corner," said Hamelin. "I tried to protect my spot because I knew it was an easy moment for getting passed on the inside. I think it wasn’t the thing to do at that moment. That’s what the referees saw on the replay. I need to see the race back because I don’t really understand what happened and what I could have done more. It is what it is."

Going from disappointment to opportunity in an instant, Girard needed a mental reset and coach Derrick Campbell and team psychologist Fabien Abejean helped provide one.

Campbell said Girard had made some mistakes racing in his first Olympic final during the 1,500, when he went out too hard and didn’t have the energy to chase down the leaders after a crash opened things up.

This time around, the chat with Campbell and Abejean "helped me be in the right zone," according to Girard, who decided then and there that he had to jump out to a lead in the final and try to hold it while expected chaos played out in the back.

"To be in the front of the race is really my place," said Girard. "Canadians are strong, we’re able to control the race, and I really wanted to be out front and be away from the crashes behind me. I knew something would happen, it’s the final, everyone wants to be on the podium, so that’s why I went to the front and give a little more energy to stay in the front."

Krueger had a similar approach, quipping that "great minds think alike." The American managed to race one lap in the lead but was otherwise behind Girard the whole time.

"He did it a little bit better than I did," said Krueger. "We both knew there were some talented and strong skaters in the back and even though it’s physically harder to lead upfront, there’s just too much traffic and too much stuff that can go down to stay in the back. We both stayed up front and it paid off for both of us."

Girard’s victory comes at a point of transition for the short-track program, with Hamelin and his fiancée Marianne St-Gelais both saying Pyeongchang are their last Olympics. Kim Boutin of Sherbooke, Que., is picking up the mantle from St-Gelais on the women’s side with a pair of bronze medals so far while Girard now has gold on the men’s side.

The first couple of short-track, with seven Olympic medals between them, have so far been shutout.

"We thought he had a chance in all three distances to come here and have a shot at the podium," Campbell said of Girard. "The men’s field is so deep right now, you look at the quarterfinals, they’re super tough, semifinals, I mean, he almost went out in the semifinals.

"It goes to show you any given day there are a number of guys who can win."

This time, it was Girard, who is rooming with Hamelin in Pyeongchang with the two of them spending the entire day together ahead of their races in preparation. "We were ready to do a great race in the semis," said Hamelin. "It didn’t go as planned but Sam is doing a great job and he’s really happy with his results right now."

Girard had plenty of reason to be.

"I’m really happy he was on the edge of the ice to share that with me," he said of Hamelin. "Also my girlfriend was there so I could share my emotion with the people I love. I was really happy about that.

"Having a medal at maybe his last Olympics and my first one, a gold medal at my first Olympics, that’s the best thing you can expect. I’m really, really happy right now."

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