GANGNEUNG — They flip the mental switch almost immediately because they have no choice in short track; the grim finality of a referee’s call at odds with the starter’s gun pointed skyward for the next race.
There is rarely time to dwell, even after the Olympic dream you chased for four years is wiped out by an infraction so innocuous, so innocent and happenstance, that nobody is quite sure it actually led to the heart-breaking disqualification that everyone wants you to explain.
That, they will tell you, is short track. At its harshest, to be sure, but that’s the game they all signed up to play, the one they still love despite its random vacillation between cool and cruel.
Canadian women’s team coach Frederic Blackburn isn’t sure, but he thinks they were disqualified from the women’s 3,000-metre relay final on Tuesday because Kim Boutin was too close to a Chinese skater at the finish line.
Boutin wasn’t actually in the race at the time. She was watching Marianne St-Gelais finish the race herself, after all hell had broken loose, the game plan exploded, and the Canadians’ late-race lead had disappeared.
The Chinese were duelling the Koreans for apparent gold.
“She was a little bit on the track,” Blackburn said of Boutin, who clearly didn’t do it on purpose. “That’s why we were penalized. What I saw was no contact on that one. She looked inside. But if she’s there, the Chinese can’t do anything if she’s there. That’s why maybe we are penalized, but I’m not sure.”
He’s not sure because nobody in a position to know has told him that’s the case. The video isn’t definitive. And what the hell does it matter, really?
“Even if we have the result, honestly, nothing will change,” said Marianne St-Gelais, the voice of experience and reason. “I don’t think we deserve that penalty tonight. We were skating so well. The girls were sharp, the girls were there, energy was on point too. Yeah, I’m really disappointed because honestly we worked so hard for that and at the end I still don’t know why we got penalized.”
She was certain, however, that it could not have been related to the way she finished the race. A Korean skater completed an exchange then fell in front of Valerie Maltais, who couldn’t complete her push with Boutin. Maltais was wiped out and took an Italian skater into the mats with her. St-Gelais had to pick up the pieces. That’s what the team leader does in this situation.
“I came back in the middle because Val went inside the track,” St-Gelais said. “We did everything that we can. I didn’t push Kim because I knew I had to finish the whole race by myself so it’s not an issue of a track, it’s not an issue of like laps or something like that.”
It’s an issue of randomness. That’s often how short track doles out its medals. A Korean falls, a Canadian falls, an Italian falls, and the scramble to get from prone on the ice to somewhere on the podium is as insane as anything you will see in sport.
That’s short track, you are told. Canada’s team has to deal with that today.
Sitting pretty in first place with three laps to go, then nothing. Pfft. Done.
But first, the cruel wait, the evil twist. Because St-Gelais had crossed the finish line properly, she was certain Canada had plucked the bronze medal from the carnage. That’s why she looked so hopefully up at the big screen for so long.
“I thought we had it. I thought we had it. I saw us third but we got penalized. I thought we had it. I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be penalized.’ I was thinking of three other teams could be penalized before us. So yeah, I thought we had it, so I was happy.”
When the results flashed, she briefly saw what she wanted to see, not what was there, and was a full syllable into a celebratory scream before her face took on a look of horror. All three of her teammates began to yell “no, no, no,” but their fate was sealed, as it can be so often, by a referee’s call.
Both the Canadians and Chinese were penalized off the podium. It was Korean gold, Italian silver, and both were precious enough, but the Netherlands made off like bandits. They won the B final and were bumped up to bronze. Dutch treat.
The stunned Canadians were left to pick through the rubble for positives. If this had been a semifinal, the Canadians would have advanced because of the collision between Maltais and the Korean, Blackburn said. But in a final, there is no room for generosity.
“That’s the bad thing but the good thing is, what we saw is my girls were ready to compete, ready to win, we were there for that and they made a great race,” Blackburn said. “They were working so hard since the last four years for that moment and I’m so proud of my girls right now.”
The Canadians had settled into second spot early in the race, biding their time. They fell back to third and fourth, rose to third and second. And then they made the move they had been planning for three years, to the front with two laps to go. They were ready to win. They were in the right spot, and then short track dealt did them the way short track can and will.
It has been a tough meet for St-Gelais and Charles Hamelin, her fiancée. He has been penalized in all three of his individual races, and will have to count on a relay medal to go out in style, since they’re both retiring after these Games.
But you can’t count on anything, as the women found out Tuesday. Their trials and tribulations haven’t made them love the sport any less on the way out than they did on the way up, however. And they are still team leaders, jobs they take seriously, so there is no time to dwell. Rather, they flip the switch.
“I just wasn’t sharp enough to make it through the rounds in the 1,000 and the 500,” Hamelin said. “There is only one guy to blame and it’s me, but I don’t put too much pressure on that. I just want to turn the page and make sure that I’m focusing and I’m there for the team for the rest of the events.”