SOCHI -- Call it the Hamelin Dynasty.
The first family of short-track speed skating struck gold again Monday, as Canada’s Charles Hamelin crossed the line first in the men’s 1500 meters at the Iceberg Palace. With his victory, Hamelin won the fourth Olympic medal of his storied career.
But this was no more a solo effort from Hamelin than any of his other successes. Charles’ father, Yves, is the program director for short track skating in Canada. His younger brother, Francois, is an Olympic teammate here and was a fellow gold medalist on Canada’s 5,000-meter relay team at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. Charles’ girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais, is also an Olympic teammate in Sochi and a double silver medalist in Vancouver.
The squad’s training center in Montreal has become one of the sport’s most envied locations. Just two months shy of his 30th birthday, Charles Hamelin has called it home for a decade.
Both Hamelin and St-Gelais, 23, were named by Hello Canada as among the country’s most beautiful people. After Monday’s race, Hamelin rushed over to hug his coach and his brother and then kiss his girlfriend as he leaned over the restraining pad.
“You cannot do great things by yourself,” he said shortly after the race. “We share this. We share it all.”
In the final, Hamelin, a successful front-runner in most of his races, grabbed the lead with five laps to go and held off China’s Han Tianyu in second and Russia’s Viktor Ahn in third. U.S. skater J.R. Celski finished fourth. Francois Hamelin finished second in the B-Final of the event, essentially ranking ninth overall.
“The plan was to control the race from near the front as I always like to do,” Hamelin said. “I was okay with one, two or three for the first part of the race, but I just didn’t want to be in the back. Too much can happen from back there.”
The 29-year-old from Sainte-Julie, Quebec, has established himself as one of the greats in the history of the sport, yet he remained haunted by his elimination from this race in the semifinals four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, where he won two gold medals.
I’ve been working so hard for that day since four years ago,” he said. “Honestly with all the good things that happened in Vancouver, the race I still thought about the most was the 1500 and it pushed me.”
Until two seasons ago, Hamelin had never been quite as comfortable with the longer event because he likes to control races from the front. The 1500 is a patient man’s game, with the first few laps playing out as chess matches in which four or five skaters may take turns leading before the pace picks up.
It’s a fool’s play to go out too early. Yet Hamelin doesn’t like to wait. “Before, when I was passed, I was working so hard to get back into first,” he explained. “I wasted so much energy in races. I had to learn to change.”
Yves Hamelin had to preach patience. “I would tell Charles every day not to underestimate his instinct because he has the best instinct in the sport,” Yves said. “Don’t be afraid so you have to go right away. That moment will come, and you’ll recognize it. Don’t panic if you don’t see it right away.”
Over the last few years, the once jittery Hamelin has become known for a calm comportment in the heat of the frenzy that his sport entails. “What makes him great is that he just doesn’t ever panic,” Francois said. “Like when the one wrong move is the end of the world, he makes the right one. It’s just how he is.”
That skill actually came in handy during Hamelin’s semifinal race, which turned perilous quickly. In the third semifinal, Hamelin enjoyed an early lead midway through the race, but since short-track skating is nothing if not random, he suddenly found himself in a bumpy pack. First, Great Britain’s Jack Welbourne gave Hamelin a small shove in the back. Then Dutchman Sjinke Knegt put his hand on Hamelin’s back, as the Canadian, now in third, was briefly tipping back on his skates. But Hamelin righted himself and shot into the lead two straightaways later. He held off his foes for the final lap to advance. “In those moments, you’re better to open the door and let him pass,” Hamelin said. “Then look for the pass later.”
The imperfect Olympics of four years ago drove Team Hamelin. Before the Vancouver Games, they would end their season in early March and not start up again until late May or early June. Since then, the team has taken just two weeks off in March before hitting the ice again and has increased its double sessions from once every ten days to two or three doubles each week.
Even when Hamelin didn’t have the imperatives repeated to him ad nauseum, he actually had them drilled into him. After the Vancouver Olympics, Hamelin sat for 11 hours as a tattoo artist created a back tattoo of the type of superhero the skater liked to read about in the comic books. This one had a man’s body made of steel with shredded skin around it and five Olympic rings stamped in the middle.
Hamelin said this medal would allow him to make some interior decorations to his home in Quebec. His first medal, a silver from the 5000-meter relay in 2006, is on his wall, but the two he won in Vancouver, golds in the relay and individual 500, are always in his backpack.
“I want people to be able to touch them,” he said. “It belongs to the people who support you. That’s your team and the people who cheer for you.” Now, he says, he’ll put those medals with their fraying ribbons, into another plaque and pull the one from Sochi out for viewing.
And before he can share the new medal, he’ll hunt for more in Sochi. With two individual races and a relay still to skate, the record of six Olympic medals by a Canadian Olympian, is within his reach.
“Tomorrow I’ll be on the ice at 8 a.m. In short track you cannot stop training,” he said somewhat wearily. “It’s OK because this team is my family and I will be with my family.”
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