Road to the Olympic Games: St-Gelais a model of speed, style and substance

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.

Marianne St-Gelais is a different kind of speed skater.

She laughs, she cries, she's a practical joker, she plays the part of a goofball, and she's a wickedly competitive racer.

The bottom line is she's an open book and makes no apologies for it.

"When I was young people said I had no future in short track because I was so different from the others," St-Gelais said from Rotterdam, the site of this weekend's world championships in short track speed skating. 

"I had fun. I was making snowmen on the ice. People said I wasn't serious. But was that my way to see my sport, to have fun.  And I'm still having fun."

She's also having a firecracker of a season — maybe her best. 

The 27-year-old, who is sponsored by the local automobile club in her adoring home town of St-Felicien, PQ, goes into the world championships having recorded a dozen podium performances on the World Cup tour this season, including an impressive three victories.

St-Gelais has the potential to win at each of the four short track disciplines — 500 metres, 1000m, 1500m, and the 3000m relay. She goes into the event ranked number one in the world at the sprint distance.

Gregerious and engaging

That said, the gregarious and hugely engaging St-Gelais is frank about her goals and it's impossible not to understand her logic on the eve of the world summit on Dutch ice.

For St-Gelais, a simple formula is at work and she hopes it will lead to the winning equation. For her it's all about putting the pedal to the metal and dialing it up a notch when the right moment arrives.

And let whatever will happen, happen.

"I like to keep things simple," she said with a chuckle. 

"I want to win. I want to be the fastest woman in the world. But I figure that being too focussed about it and over-thinking it doesn't work for me.  I'm just feeling privileged to be among the strongest women in my sport and this year I believe I have a shot to fight for the overall title."

That would mean putting it all together in four races this weekend and emerging as the first Canadian woman to win an overall world short track title since Nathalie Lambert captured the last of her three championships in 1994. 

St-Gelais is the latest in an illustrious group of female short trackers who have emerged from Quebec to pioneer the sport on the international stage. Lambert, five-time overall world champ Sylvie Daigle, Olympic champion Annie Perreault and Isabelle Charest, who will lead Team Canada as chef de mission at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, have carved out a lasting place in the nation's speed skating folklore.

"Not only are they strong, but they are intelligent, articulate, interesting and so devoted to giving back to inspire young girls," said Charest of the tradition she and St-Gelais are a part of from the team's home base in Montreal.

"I love how Marianne is not afraid to say out loud what her goals are. She doesn't limit herself and she is not afraid of the big expectations."

Expectations are high

And make no mistake, in Rotterdam the expectations are riding on St-Gelais, who was second overall at the last year's world championships. It doesn't matter that her fiancé is the highly decorated Charles Hamelin who has yet to win a world overall title, the only thing he hasn't accomplished in his career.

This time for St-Gelais it's all about racing to win and being her own woman from start to finish.  And although she knows people are looking for her to be a leader and an example in the eyes of the next generation of aspiring young girls who want to be speed skaters, she'll take it in stride with a characteristic happy-go-lucky attitude which has so far served her well.

"I understand that I have a part to play as a role model because I'm an athlete," she said. "But I still have so much to do. I don't want to get too complicated. My advice to young athletes is to not be afraid of who you are. We are all different. Don't change because people say you don't fit in the mould."

She's won three Olympic silver medals from two Games — in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. She is the undisputed leader of the pack when it comes to Canadian women's short track. She may also have the best prospects to be a gold-medal champion with the next Olympics just around the corner.

But St-Gelais won't let it all get to her. 

Not right now.

She will merrily go about her business, dashing and driving to the wildly unpredictable conclusion that her sport offers every time she laces up her skates.

She is fast, female and having fun.

By her own estimation — and anybody else's — that's what gives Marianne St-Gelais substance as an athlete.

"I want an Olympic gold medal, but I also want a world title. I can't put into words how much it means to me," she said.

"But the thing I'm most proud of is that I see myself as a whole person, my own person.  And if I continue to believe in that, you'll see I can make miracles happen."

I wouldn't want to bet against her.