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Competing in the Olympic Trials is arguably the most demanding, difficult and draining competition in a Canadian short tracker’s skating career.  After years of being friends, sometimes best friends, and being taught to compete as a team against the rest of the world, the pressure to skate against – and beat – one’s fellow teammates for a spot on the Olympic Team is actually referred to as painful by many of the members of the Canadian Team.  The words “extremely difficult”, “terrible”, “worst” and “grueling” are recurring themes used to describe the event.  From the sound of it, nothing is more trying in a career, not the Olympics themselves or even recovery from serious injury.

 

And yet they must do it.  If they ever want to compete at the Olympics, stand atop the podium and hear “O Canada” played in their honor, they must compete against, and beat, their friends.

 

Nowhere in the world is the competition so fierce as it is for the men’s team in Canada.  Nowhere in the world is the team depth so marked and vast.  Nowhere in the world is it this hard to make the team in this sport.

 

The top 16 men & boys, and the top 16 women and girls in Canada step onto the ice at the beginning of the 9-day competition.  Slips, falls and injuries leave less than that standing at the end.  And when it’s all over, only 5 of each gender (plus a 6th as alternate) will go to the Olympic Games.

 

It’s no wonder they’re called trials.

 

Just a few short hours after making the Olympic Team for the 3rd consecutive time and taking the 5th and final spot on the team, Jonathan sat down for an interview for his site about these Trials and past ones he’s competed in.  He arrived wearing jeans with a black belt, cologne, his trusty flip-flops and a light blue T-shirt designed to look something like a soccer jersey. It said “Argentina” and had the number “10” on it, and he wore a white T-shirt underneath it.  The guy cleans up pretty nice!  It was almost odd to see him not wearing a skin suit or sporting the infamous “helmet hair” we’ve all come to know and love from everyone in the sport of short track.

 

He talked at length about the lessons he learned in the Nagano Games when he went as the alternate, the ways that helped him win medals in Salt Lake, what his trials were like this time around and more.  So get ready to read about a ride unlike any other.  Fasten your seatbelts, make sure you've got your helmets on, and catch a rare glimpse into the life of an Olympian before, during and after his Trials.

Photo by Lori J. Bayne
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Jo smiles for the camera just hours after making his 3rd Olympic Team

JG.com:  How do these Olympic Trials compare with past ones?  What is different and what’s the same?

 

Jonathan:  (He thinks for a moment and sighs)  It’s pretty … well, as far as the points and the amount of physical work we had to do … the points were the same, the overall selection was pretty much the same, but in 2002 it was much more difficult physically, 'cause we had four times each distance to do.  Now [these Trials] we did [each distance] three times.  But, in 2002 in Abbottsford we were doing more than one distance.  We were doing two distances per day.  So we had like five or six races to do each day, compared to here we had …

 

At this point, his cell phone rang and he laughed and said, “Oh, sorry.  I have a phone call.  Can I take it?”  “Sure!  I don’t mind,” I replied.  He flipped open the red-backed, silver phone and answered it in English saying “Hi!” happily to whoever was on the other end of the line.  He left the room for a bit of privacy and was gone for about 3 minutes.  When he returned, he apologized for the interruption, but it was understandable.  I’m sure many people wanted to congratulate him and/or find out how his Trials went.  He had made the team less than three hours prior to the interview, and frankly, I was surprised that he only got one call!  So I reminded him where we’d left off and we started up again.

 

Jonathan:  Oh yeah!  The different things, like I was saying, [one was] the physical part of it.  In 2002, we were doing two distances each day, so it was like five to six races each day.  Like you do a fifteen in the morning and a 500 in the afternoon, or a five and a thousand in the same day.  So we were pretty much all day at the rink, and it was a super-cold rink anyway so it was super-hard physically.  And it was long because we were doing four times each distance compared to here we’re doing three times each distance.  But the number of days, it’s the same.  Here we were doing one distance per day, it’s pretty much the same:  nine to eleven days racing. 
 
It’s still a lot, but I found that it was much more difficult mentally here 'cause of the free time we had during the day waiting for the races at night.  Like, you knew what your races were and you knew the points.  We were always thinking about the points and it was hard to focus on skating and just to do a good race, 'cause we were always thinking like, “What if?  What if?  What if this happens?  What if I don’t do good?  Or what if I do bad?”  So it was hard mentally to stay focused on your thing.  But, that’s pretty much the two different things that I found.

Photo Submitted by Raymonde Guilmette
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Jonathan at the '98 Nagano Games with figure skaters Sha-Lynn Bourne and Lu Chen (of China)

JG.com:  Now, what about your Trials for ’98.  Were they the same way?

 

Jonathan:  A little bit, a little bit, but we only had two distances to do.  In ’98 it was the 500 and the 1000, so we were doing three times each distance.  I was younger, so I didn’t have any big expectations, so I was not that stressed.  I was stressed at the end, 'cause it came 'til the very last race for me to qualify to go to the Games, so it was like … when you’re in a position to qualify, it’s stressful ‘cause you wanna qualify, even if it was not one of your goals.  Now that you’re there, even if you’re young, it’s very stressful 'cause you wanna try to go.

 

JG.com:  So you didn’t plan on going to the Games with those Trials?  Also, were you still a Jr. or had you just become a Senior?

 

Jonathan:  Uhhhh … Yeah, I was 18 or 19 years old.  Just the year before I made my first World Championship in '97 which was to Nagano anyway, so it was a good experience and everything.  And the World team wasn’t sealed.  (Then he laughs while remembering.)  It's still my best World Championship, 'cause the venue, the city and the organization was perfect and it was my 1st time in Asia.  It was so big for me!  (He laughs to himself again.)  But the organization and everything was like super-smooth and it was in Nagano, which was going to be the Olympic city, too. 

 

(Coming back to talking about the Trials for the '98 Olympics)  So, I finished 5th, but I was like an underdog and I took the 5th spot.  I knew that there were other skaters that were super-good and older than me and much more experienced behind me, so I was not expecting to go to the Games.  But still I wanted to go, and I knew it was possible, but it’s hard to fix a goal when you know it’s gonna be hard.  It was much more like a dream to go to the Games than a solid goal.  But it was there, so I did it anyway.

 

The hard thing here this week mentally is that we're all good friends here and the team has never been so close.  We're all super-good friends and it was so hard to compete against your friends, to see somebody not do good while youre doing good.  You're happy for yourself but you're like super-angry because the other one's not making as good as he could be.  So it was super-hard emotionally and I'm pretty happy that it’s over now!  (He laughs again, sounding very relieved.)

 

It’s so different than an international competition.  [There] we’re all a team, the Canadian Team together, and we’re competing against the world and we don’t know that much the other skaters, so it’s not like our best friends.  Here, we’re training in Montréal all together and we’re all best friends, the men’s team.  We were twelve or thirteen skaters all summer long, training together and pushing each other, so it was very hard to compete at the end of the summer, everybody against each other.  Yeah, super-hard.

 

JG.com:  What did you learn going to Nagano?  Did it teach you things that helped in Salt Lake?

 

Jonathan:  Yeah!  A lot of things!!

 

JG.com:  Like what?

Jonathan:  Like just going to the Games, you see how big it is!  If you’re watching it on TV it’s not the same, and even if people are trying to tell you “The Games are different than World Championship and World Cups even if it’s the same skaters.  It’s much bigger because of all the winter sports are together.  The organization is so big and so much stuff is happening everywhere that it can get you distracted.”  Even if people are telling you that, you can’t imagine what it’s really like.  But once you’re there, [it’s different].  Just being there and not competing I could see everything.  I could see people who were really stressed out by journalists or the media attention, so I learned a lot with that just by watching and observing things.  That helped me a lot in Salt Lake. When I arrived there, I knew all the little things that were going on, like the reception at the Canadian House and those things, and I was not impressed [or awestruck] by anything.  I knew what to do and I knew what was coming and what was happening, so it was much easier to focus.

 

JG.com:  Do you think that helped you to win medals?

 

Jonathan:  Oh yeah, sure!!  ‘Cause when it’s your 1st time at the Olympic Games, you wanna enjoy everything.  It’s so easy to lose your focus ‘cause there’s an arcade in the Village and it’s free, there’s all kinds of fun stuff to do, the cafeteria’s open 24 hours, there’s a McDonald’s inside the cafeteria, so …

 

JG.com:  (I ask, laughing) Isn’t that last one a bad thing?

 

Jonathan:  Well, it’s a big sponsor, so …  but anyway, it’s easy just to get your attention away, and when I was there in '98 I was sure not to skate, so I could train and enjoy everything that was there.  And after that, in 2002, I had done all those little things, all those distractions, and that helped me win my medals for sure 'cause I could keep my focus.

Photo Submitted by Raymonde Guilmette
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19 year old Jonathan Guilmette at the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, 1998

At this point, I looked at the next question on my laptop and had to laugh as I read aloud to him, “How do you feel you’re doing at these Trials?”  I answered myself by saying, “Well, that one’s pretty obvious,” and he laughed too.  So we went onto the next question which was:

 

JG.com:  How are you feeling this season?  Is your back healed?

 

Jonathan:  Oh!  My back is fine!  I didn’t have pain last year.  Throughout the season, my back was not a problem.  It’s just a question of ummmmm … shape.  My shape was not back yet 'cause I didn’t train all summer long [last year].  Not because of my back – I could have trained at least a little, but I didn’t feel like it, I didn’t want to.  I had a lot of frustration and I just needed a break for my head and I’m happy that I did it.  But it was still hard to get back in shape this summer.  Even at the end of last year, to get my physical shape back to the same level as those guys.  So that was a hard thing but it came out pretty good.  (He laughs to himself at this comment.)

 

JG.com:  Do you feel like you did it?  Do you feel like you’re back in shape now?

 

Jonathan:  Yeah, I’m back in shape!  My endurance is there.  My 1500 is good, and that’s the distance I’ll try at the Games.  I’m pretty confident 'cause my endurance is there, as good as it was in 2004.  And it’s only the sprint that I’m not as explosive, but that takes time.

 

JG.com:  It sounds funny to ask this, because you’re only 27, but do you think the sprint issue is due to age?

 

Jonathan:  Oh no, I don’t think so!  As you can see Mathieu [Turcotte] and Eric [Bedard] are pretty fast at that distance, they’re the fastest skaters, and they’re the oldest, so I don’t think so.  In the past few years I’ve been training for … well, I wanted to improve a lot [in the longer distances].  My 500 was good internationally and I wanted to improve my endurance, especially the 1500 and 3000m, because we were always losing the World Championships to the Koreans in the 3G (3000m).  So every time a Canadian was in a good position to win the World Championship, we were losing it in the 3G to the Koreans 'cause they were so good in endurance.  So I decided to improve that and I did.  In 2004 I had a good shot at the World Championship.  My endurance there, I was at the same level as the Koreans in the longer distances, and I was better than them at the sprints, so I had a good shot. 

 

But … then …

(he stops, looks down and thinks back on his back-breaking crash at the World Championships in March 2004.  He then fiddles uncomfortably with his mobile phone, laughs a bit nervously and while still looking down, thinks for another moment before continuing.)

… Yeah, sh*t happens.

 

It was a bit difficult for me to continue the interview at this point, but not because he was broken up or anything; it was just hard to watch him talk about being robbed of such an amazing opportunity when he was in the best shape of his career.  He still looks very unhappy when he talks about it.  But somehow, the conversation gradually turned to fan mail and my forwarding it to him when it gets sent to the site box rather than to him directly, and things lightened a bit.  I mentioned someone once asking him about what to look for when buying boots and out of the blue, I asked him:

 

JG.com:   So why do you wear RAM boots?

 

Jonathan:  Because theeeeeyyyyyyy … gave it to me?  I didn’t pay for it, so that’s why.  It’s kind of a sponsor.  Yeah.  Maybe I’ll try Apex for the Games because I need new boots.

 

We were back on track and he seemed happy again, and I turned the questioning back to the Trials.

Trials and Tribulations, page 2

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