After months of training, a lot of unknowns and some stress leading into the Canadian long track speed skating championships, the athletes and coaches can take a deep breath.
Canada's speed skaters delivered powerful performances over five days of skating at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, setting the stage for a competitive season leading into the Olympics in February.
This was a pivotal event to not only choose the athletes who will represent the country on the World Cup circuit, but more importantly it is a critical first step for athletes who want to represent Canada in Beijing.
"I definitely feel relieved. It's been a mental struggle for me for a little while now with it being an Olympic season and my husband has been away for a while now. It's just hard," Ivanie Blondin said.
Blondin, from Ottawa, was not skating her best early in the competition. However, on Saturday she was able to regain her focus and form to win the national championship in the 1,500-metre event with a time of 1:54.64, a season's best time.
"There for sure was a little bit of panic. But the fact that I was able to turn it around is a huge win for me. Four years ago I couldn't have done this. It would have been a different outcome."
Blondin is one of seven speed skaters who have been preselected to the World Cup team — Isabelle Weidemann, Laurent Debreuil, Ted-Jan Bloemen, Jordan Belchos, Graeme Fish and Antoine Gelinas-Beaulieu are also on the team based on their results at the world championships the previous two years.
Upwards of 21 Canadian athletes will be part of the World Cup team — there could be more added based on results. Any athletes who met the Canadian time standard in each distance at nationals and placed in the top-three are likely to be named to the squad.
Breaking records, finding right track
Laurent Dubreuil is brimming with confidence early in the season having won both the 500m and 1,000m at the national championships. Dubreiul finished the 500m race in 34.12 and stopped the clock in the 1,000m in a time of 1:07.29.
The sprint specialist from Lévis, Que., says his starts have been getting better and it's leading to success.
"I'm the most powerful and most explosive I've ever been," Dubreuil said.
"I'm focused on the task at hand every day. The goal is Beijing. I'm not thinking about that at all right now though. I'm focused on each day so I can be at my best in February. Staying present every day and having fun doing it."
On day two of the event two records were broken at the Olympic Oval. Isabelle Weidemann broke the national record in the women's 5,000m posting a time of 6:46.81 — it was more than five tenths of a second faster than her own previous mark.
"Very surprised," she said.
"I was a little unsure what the training was going to give me. We hadn't raced in so long. Training has been going well but I've definitely been uncomfortable a lot this year. But this is a great start."
WATCH | Isabelle Weidemann breaks national record in women's 5,000m:
Ted-Jan Bloemen skated his way to an Olympic Oval record in the men's 10,000m.
His time of 12:41.55 over the 25 laps was faster than anyone else in history at the venue. Bloemen's teammates and training partners Graeme Fish and Jordan Belchos took silver and bronze respectively.
"I know I'm on track. Now I have to stay on track and keep doing the right things," Bloemen said. "It's a motivating feeling knowing you're on the right track."
Bloemen is the defending Olympic champion in the distance.
"I've been skating for so many years now and I'm so conscious of how I want to compete and train. I've developed a lot of feelings for that," he said.
"Every time you make an improvement you feel that right away. You start feeling more mighty every time."
'I'm very happy with the work I've done'
Valérie Maltais captured the national championship title in the 1,000m. Four years ago she was a short track speed skater at the Olympics for Canada. Now she's switched to long track and is thriving to begin the season.
She finished the 1,000m in a time of 1:14.95, more than two seconds faster than her previous best time in the distance.
"I was so surprised by that result. I know I'm fast but to show it in my race this early, I'm really happy about it," she said.
"Every training I've done this year I've had to make sure I make count," Maltais said. "Clear intention every day. So far I'm very happy with the work I"ve done."
Now the speed skaters will switch their focus back to training in preparation for the four fall World Cup competitions.
The World Cups are scheduled for Tomaszów Mazowiecki, Poland, Stavanger, Nowary, Salt Lake City and Calgary. The results from those four events will go a long way in determining what athletes represent Canada at the Olympics.
There is one final chance to make the Olympic team set for late December in Quebec City.