Teamwork makes the difference for NWT speed skaters

It may be an individual sport, but being supportive is the key to our skaters' success
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NWT's Maddison Pilling in heat action at the AWG on Monday.

It takes a special kind of athlete to win gold medals, or in this case, gold ulus. It takes an incredible kind of team to win four in one day.

Speed skating is usually considered an individual sport, but the NWT skating team doesn’t see it that way.

The blue-suited powerhouse cut a path across the ice to win not only four gold medals, but two silver and three bronze, all on their first day of competition Monday.

They are the winningest team at the Arctic Winter Games so far, and chances are they’re only going to increase their haul.

So what makes them so fast?

If you ask them, they’d tell you "each other."

“We’re kind of like one big family. When one person takes a loss, it kind of affects everyone. It’s really great knowing that everyone has your back,” said 777 metre juvenile boys champion Isaac Wideman.

Wideman’s been skating since he was little, but this is his first time at the games. To come out of day one with a gold medal around his neck isn’t something he takes for granted, or for himself.

“I’m feeling pretty awesome. I really hope to have some good competition from here on in like I did today. I think our team is going to do extremely well. We have a very strong team, as you saw today,” said Wideman, of Yellowknife.

Sitting around a table at the Canada Games Complex with three of his medal-winning teammates, it’s clear that Wideman values the guidance of his more experienced teammates.

Yellowknife's Hannah Clark, gold medalist in the 1000 metre junior girls race, echoes Wideman’s sentiments.

“I’m in a bit of a leadership role, but I think it’s great. I stick pretty closely with the three other girls in my age group. They bring tons of crazy ideas to our days, like we’ll go out and tour downtown without a map, which is fun,” Clark said.

Clark’s own final was, as with her teammates, an impressive piece of skating. But she said getting there was the bigger challenge.

“I feel like my final went really well. It was hard though, racing in the heats and semis. Basically I just had to stay on my feet and stay focused. It wasn’t more crowded, but I felt like the motivation had to come for myself instead of from my competitors or from the crowd,” Clark said.

Perhaps the most telling example of the skaters’ bond is their reaction to questions about some of their teammates who were struck by bad luck and crashed out of the finals.

“Both of our skaters who fell earlier in their heats and semis did really well in their B and C finals. I’d look for them to come back strong tomorrow, especially (Fort Simpson's ) Kevin (Anavilok-Roche),” Clark said, speaking for her teammates.

That may sound less like a teammate and more like a coach speaking, but Yellowknife coach Shane Clark isn’t at all surprised. He said the strength of his team comes from the bonds they share and their ability to both challenge and stick up for each other.

“That’s one of the reasons they’re so fast,” coach Clark said.

“They stick together, and we are a team. It’s an individual sport, but we are a team.”

But according to him, there’s also a little more to it.

“Speed skating attracts individuals who are driven by wanting to achieve their personal best. It’s like Hannah says: 'If you’re not racing against other people on the ice, you’re still racing against yourself.' It’s also incredibly technical. It’s sort of like golf. If you change one tiny aspect, you’re going to slice into the woods.

“After Kevin crashed out, we took a look at his skates and found out his blade was off angle by about a quarter of an inch, and caused him to be booting into the ice. We made the adjustment and it made all the difference. So he’s ready to go on Tuesday, and he’s going to come back with a fire in his belly,” coach Clark said.

The speed skating sprint events take place Tuesday at the Canada Games Complex, and many eyes and more than a few camera lenses will be on the NWT team to bring home more hardware.