Speedskaters prepare for World Cup final and Olympic dress rehearsal

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CALGARY - Much of Canada's success at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., will ride on the long blades and muscular legs of its long-track speedskaters.
The long-track team was Canada's biggest medal producer at the 2006 Olympics with eight, which accounted for almost a third of the country's total of 24 in Turin, Italy.
The host country's goal in 2010 is to win more medals than any other country and many of them are expected to come from the Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C., next February.
The Canadian team enters its most important phase of the 2008-09 season starting Friday. The World Cup final in Salt Lake City will set the squad up for the world single-distance championships, which will be an Olympic dress rehearsal next week in Richmond.
''It's going to be really fast ice in Salt Lake City. It's my goal to use my fast ice as an opportunity to set some personal bests and who knows? Maybe some world records,'' said Denny Morrison, who hold the world's fastest time in the men's 1,000 metres.
''It would be pretty cool to say I had the two fastest times ever skated, but to me it's more important having my best performance at the world championships in Richmond and getting a world championship title. That's more important than a world record.''
It's been a mixed season for the long-track team. They head into Salt Lake with 31 World Cup medals of 10 gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze.
That's well off the pace of last season when they brought home 56 medals, but the dropoff is due to the glaring absence of Jeremy Wotherspoon, who won 14 last season, and multi-Olympic medallist Cindy Klassen.
Wotherspoon, the world-record holder in the 500 metres, broke his arm in the second race of his season Nov. 8 and hasn't raced since. Klassen, winner of six career Olympic medals, took the winter off after knee surgery last summer.
In their abence, Morrison, from Fort. St. John, B.C., Ottawa's Kristina Groves and Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., have been carrying the torch.
Groves and Nesbitt are the overall World Cup leaders in the 1,500 and 1,000 metres respectively heading into the finale. Each is second behind the other in the distance they aren't No. 1.
Groves and Nesbitt have each won nine World Cup medals, including three gold. Groves is also second in the 3,000-metre standings.
Morrison, whose pattern is racing his best in the second half of the season, ranks second to Shani Davis of the U.S., in the men's 1,000 metres. He's collected six medals and won all three of his gold in February.
''I had my three gold medals at competitions that are going to be right over the Olympic dates of next year,'' he said. ''Hopefully it's the same next year and I have great performances right in the middle of February.''
The speedskaters know the expectations of them come 2010. Winnipeg's Shannon Rempel, who ranks fourth in the women's 1,000, says the team's depth helps diffuse the pressure.
''There's a lot of skaters who have potential to do really well and I think most people feels it's kind of spread out throughout the team,'' she explained. ''There's a lot of girls who are really strong right now and we're all battling to be top five in the world.''
Meanwhile, Canada's winter athletes and winter Paralympians are in action elsewhere in World Cups and world championships.
Francois-Louis Tremblay of Alma., Que., is ranked No. 1 in the world in the 500 metres heading into the world short-track speedskating championships opening Friday in Vienna, Austria.
World champion John Kucera of Calgary leads the men's alpine team into World Cup downhills Friday and Saturday and a super-G race Sunday in Kvitfjell, Norway. The women's team races World Cup giant slalom and slalom Friday and Saturday respectively in Ofterschwang, Germany.
Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., headlines the cross-country ski squad at World Cup races Saturday and Sunday in Lahti, Finland.

Organizations: Olympic Oval

Geographic location: Canada, Richmond, CALGARY Salt Lake City Vancouver Whistler Turin Italy Ottawa London, Ont. U.S. Winnipeg World Cups Vienna Austria Kvitfjell Norway Ofterschwang Germany Sudbury Lahti Finland

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