Going for gold

After undergoing surgery on both knees, Winnipegger Cindy Klassen - Canada's most decorated Olympian - is on her way to Vancouver, ready once again to take on the world.

After undergoing surgery on both knees, Winnipegger Cindy Klassen - Canada's most decorated Olympian - is on her way to Vancouver, ready once again to take on the world.
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Lightning on ice

Manitoba's Olympians

Made in Manitoba

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2010

It's a bright, crisp morning in December as Cindy Klassen, a sleek silhouette in her form-fitting speed skating suit, glides along the ice inside Calgary's Olympic Oval, preparing to take a few practice laps just days before an important race.

Seconds later, the Winnipeg native is streaking around the track, the quick thrusts of her powerful legs gradually lengthening into an easy flow as she hits her beautifully synchronized stride, the one that has earned her the respect and admiration of anyone who's ever followed her illustrious career.

Klassen doesn't need to go hard. And she doesn't. Her skating is loose and limber. But there is something in the air that seems to hint at the uncertainty surrounding her this day. With just over two months to go, Klassen has not yet solidified her position on the Canadian speed skating team headed for the Vancouver Olympic Games in February.

Two knee surgeries 18 months ago have taken their toll, and it is only now that she is starting to regain the power, fitness and technique synonymous with her stature as a six-time Olympic medalist. With less than a month to go before the last series of Olympic qualifying races, Klassen knows practices like these hold the key to determining whether she will make a return trip to the podium in Vancouver.

Given the circumstances, it is easy to understand how someone in Klassen's position might be feeling a little pressure. After all, she is Canada's Golden Girl, the nation's most decorated Olympian, with six medals and four world championships to her credit. The expectations for her are off the chart. And yet, somehow, this 30-yearold woman remains as cool as a January morning at Portage and Main.

"Skating is something I love to do," Klassen says, flashing her gorgeous trademark smile in an interview following her practice laps. "I really feel like this is where God has placed me, in this sport, so when I get back on the ice, I love it. And I'm just so thankful to be able to get back and to be able to race again. Having that joy for skating is what helps, and also having a challenge, having that goal ahead of me to try to get to the Games. That pushes me and helps me to get onto the ice every day to do the best that I can."

That combination of faith, hard work and pure joy for the sport will pay off for Klassen.

On Dec. 28 at the Canadian Olympic team trials in long-track speed skating, she finishes second with a time of 4 minutes, 6.08 seconds in the 3,000 metre race. That's good enough to land Klassen on the team headed to Vancouver.

"I just left it in God's hands," a smiling Klassen told reporters following the conclusion of this all-important race. "I'm happy with the race and I just thank God for giving me the ability to come back and qualify for the Games, because I didn't know a year and a half ago what was going to happen. So I'm just grateful for this opportunity again."

Three days later, on the first day of 2010, Klassen turns in another second-place finish, with a time of 1 minute, 55.65 seconds, in the women's 1,500-metre qualifying trials to ensure another Olympic ticket. And before the month is over, she will snag a spot in the 5,000-metre race.

So how does it feel, that realization that she's set to compete for Canada on the glittering world stage known as the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games?

"It's very exciting, especially since they're in our home country," she says. "It's not like anything else. I've been to a lot of World Cups and world championships, and although there's a lot of hype and it's very exciting to compete in those, the Olympics only come once every four years.

"It's also about national pride. It's a tremendous honour just to be able to qualify for those Games and to represent Canada in our home country."

Clearly, Klassen isn't taking the privilege of skating for Canada in what will be her third Olympics for granted. That's because Klassen, recognized by Sports Illustrated magazine as one of the Top 10 Olympian women of the last decade, should be in the prime of her career.

But the last 24 months have been anything but smooth for the speed skating dynamo, who captured the hearts of millions with a record five medals, including a gold, two silver and two bronze, at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

Like many Olympians, Klassen took the 2006/07 season off for a well-deserved period of rest and relaxation and to begin preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

But after returning to competition at the beginning of 2008, Klassen had to rush home from a World Cup event in Berlin, Germany, to tend to a family emergency. Her sister, Lisa, had been involved in an accident in which her Jeep plunged into the frigid waters of the Red River. An accomplished pilot and musician, Lisa was clinging to life. Cindy kept a vigil at her bedside as Lisa struggled to recuperate from multiple injuries, including a fractured pelvis, tailbone and vertebra.

"We're so thankful to God that she's still around," says Cindy, reflecting on her sister's accident. "She was so close to dying."

Five months later in July of 2008, Klassen had to come to terms with another medical issue. She decided to undergo surgery on both of her knees. The complex operation took less than an hour and a half, but it resulted in her sitting out the 2008/09 season. The question now was whether she could recover in time for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Given that this pretty blonde has become synonymous with speed skating excellence - Klassen's likeness has been immortalized in the form of brand new 25- cent coins issued by the Royal Canadian Mint on Jan. 5 - it may come as a surprise to some that speed skating was actually her second choice, after a career in ice hockey failed to materialize.

After starting as a hockey player with the Gateway Community Club in Winnipeg, Klassen advanced to play as a member of Canada's National Junior Women's Hockey Team in 1996. But by the time she turned 18, Klassen decided to switch to speed skating, where she's excelled ever since.

During the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, Klassen scored the first bronze medal (in the 3,000-metre race) of her Olympic career. Four years later, at the Olympics in Turin, the world watched as a beaming Klassen held up not one, but five medals - the first Canadian to win that many medals at one Olympic Games.

In doing so, Klassen tied American speed skater Eric Heiden for the most medals won during an Olympic Games (Heiden won five medals during the 1980 Winter Games held in Lake Placid, New York). Klassen's accomplishments in Turin also allowed her to surpass the previous Canadian record of most medals won during a single Olympic Games set by fellow Canadian speed skating legend Gaetan Boucher, who won three medals during the 1984 Games in Sarajevo.

Skating on surgically repaired knees, however, has seen Klassen clock times that are decidedly slower than the explosively powerful, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet performances she's renowned for.

"When I came back into skating, I realized that because I missed out on a whole year of training, technically I would have to be a very good skater," Klassen admits.

"And so that's been something that I've been trying to work on: just focusing on my technique and doing the right thing. So where I might not be as strong at the finish, if I can hold my technique together, that could possibly make up for the lost fitness."

"It used to be all about power for me," Klassen continues. "Now I need to be more technical… We always focus on technique but for me, it was more about just working through the race, just going as hard as I can. Now I have to think more about what I'm doing."

Born Aug. 12, 1979, the oldest of four children, Cindy Klassen has always excelled at whatever sport she's put her heart and soul into.

Basketball, ice hockey, field lacrosse (in which the then-15-year-old competed in the 1994 Commonwealth Games), in-line skating (Klassen competed for Canada at the 1999 Pan Am Games) - you name it, Klassen has played it.

The only downside to this active lifestyle is that her knees started to deteriorate as a result - so much so that when Klassen's surgery took place in the summer of 2008, it wasn't an option anymore. It was a necessity.

"It (the wear and tear on my knees) was just a gradual process," says Klassen, noting that the anterior cruciate ligament, commonly known as the ACL, in her right knee was initially torn during a basketball game in Grade 11. "My knees were always painful and they were just getting worse and worse. I was having trouble doing some of the training that I wanted to do, like jumping. And even being explosive while I'm racing, that was hard to do just because every time I put pressure on my knees, they were hurting me."

After trying a variety of non-surgical treatments, including everything from physiotherapy, ultrasound, massage, highintensity ultrasound, anti-inflammatory medications, strengthening exercises and local anesthetic injections, Klassen finally turned to Dr. Nick Mohtadi, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Calgary's Sport Medicine Centre, to discuss her options. The result was arthroscopic surgery on both knees at Calgary's Peter Lougheed Centre.

Known as debridement, the procedure involved cleaning up damaged tissue in Klassen's tendons, as well as the joint surface wear and tear on both knees, explains Mohtadi, who was given permission by Klassen to speak about her surgical procedure.

Klassen's injuries are a direct result of overuse, says Mohtadi. Asked whether Klassen's knees will ever return to normal, Mohtadi's answer is to the point. "What does normal mean? There is nothing normal about someone who wins five medals at an Olympic Games," he says.

"It takes a tremendous amount of effort, and therefore stress, on the body and in particular, the knees. That in itself means that it is unlikely that Cindy's knees will be back to a perfectly normal state. All elite athletes pay the price for success. So the knees will never be perfectly normal, but no further surgery or other treatment will be necessary, and once she has retired, her knees will likely be okay."

As for Klassen's recovery, from the summer of 2008 to December 2009, well, that comes as no surprise to Mohtadi. "(Superb athletes like Cindy Klassen) are focused, goal-directed and unbelievably determined," he says. "They have support from a dedicated team of coaches, therapists and doctors. They are winners, and losing is not an option. Therefore, quitting is not likely a word in their vocabulary."

That Klassen was able to recover and secure a spot on the Canadian Olympic speed skating team did not come as a surprise to Lisa Klassen, either.

"This is a dream come true for her," says Lisa from her home in Southport, about an hour west of Winnipeg. "The Olympics are definitely something Cindy's been aiming for right from Turin. It's such an honour to represent Canada and I know she really hoped that she would have that opportunity. You can definitely tell that she's really excited to be back skating again and very grateful that she can be on the ice again."

Although Cindy lives and trains in Calgary, Winnipeg is really the city she calls home, says Lisa. "We're a pretty tight family, so we spent a lot of time together growing up and even now, even though she's not living in Winnipeg, whenever we have a chance to see each other, we'll spend time, go out for coffee or just chat," Lisa says, admitting to following Cindy on Twitter from time to time. "We still talk on the phone whenever we can."

So what is it really like to have a famous sister?

"It's pretty exciting," admits the softspoken 25-year-old. "People always ask about her and it's really an honour to be able to share with them how she's doing. It's just really neat."

Watching her sister progress from not being able to engage in her favourite activities of water-skiing, fishing, riding her mountain bike and blueberry-picking at the family cottage in Manitoba during the summer of 2008 to winning a spot on the national team during Olympic trials in 2009 has been nothing short of fantastic, says Lisa.

Cindy couldn't agree more.

"It's funny," she says with a giggle. "I came out of surgery and I thought, 'Oh, my knees will be good in a month. It took a bit longer than that."

A year and a half later, Klassen admits to experiencing knee pain at times. But the discomfort is manageable and, even better, it's not constant. Time, she says, and careful monitoring of her training, has made all the difference. Even so, it wasn't until January of 2009 - not to mention logging hours and hours in the pool as an initial way of getting back to speed skating form - that Klassen first set foot on the ice.

"It was hard, though, because we couldn't always push it," she remembers. "I would get on the ice and then if my knees started to swell up, I would have to hold back and get back on the bike again. I did a lot of training on the bike. At first, it was tough. I wasn't on the ice all the time, I could do it here and there but I couldn't do too much to irritate my knees."

That meant being on the ice for maybe a few laps, if that, she says, adding that she used those brief stints to try different techniques, gingerly trying out what might work best.

"It depended on the day, it depended on my knees, too," recalls Klassen. "It was like they had a mind of their own. One day, they would be okay and the next day, I would do the same thing and they just didn't like it. So it probably wasn't until the summer of 2009 that I could get on the ice and not worry about my knees blowing up on me."

Of course, none of this was going to stop her from getting to Vancouver. So what is it about this Winnipeg Wonder that allows her to triumph over every set of challenging circumstances thrown her way?

Clearly, wellness - physical, mental, spiritual and emotional - is an important part of any elite athlete's success. Klassen, for example, follows a fairly rigid routine when she is training. "Wellness is about mind and body," she says. "That means exercising and eating healthy."

Normally, you can find her training at the Olympic Oval six days a week, starting with ice time for several hours in the morning, followed by a few more hours in the afternoon, whether it's a weighttraining session or logging some time on the bike. In order to keep up the pace, diet is important. That means consuming vegetables, protein and whole grains every two-and-a-half hours or so.

Even her weakness for chocolate is a healthy one. "Chocolate is my favourite (treat), so I always have to have a little bit of that, for sure," she admits with a laugh. "Dark chocolate, that is," a reference to the fact that it is deemed to be more healthy than milk chocolate.

But wellness is not defined by training and diet alone. At the core of Klassen's being is a very strong belief in faith. "Everything that I've gone through, especially with my sister's accident, I'm just always trusting in God and putting Him first in my life," says Klassen, a devout Christian who attends Calgary's Centre Street Church. "I feel fortunate to be able to be a speed skater, but every day I feel is a gift from Him; it's a gift to be able to speed skate. I'm so thankful. The foundation of my life is Christ in my life. That's how I try to live my life."

And since God has chosen to place her in the fast-paced realm of speed skating, Klassen says that she seeks, every day, to honour Him by doing her very best.

"For me, my faith is the most important part of my life, having that relationship with God and with Christ," reiterates Klassen, who keeps a variety of Scripture verses tucked into the sleeves of her speed skating suit. "I put my trust in God and I know that everything is in His hands. Everything I do, I'm trying to do for the glory of God."

That includes skating to the best of her ability - and going for gold - during the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics.

"I'm looking forward to the Games," she says. "I'm really grateful to be able to qualify for that. I'm pretty happy with everything right now."

Jennifer Partridge is a Calgary writer.

Wave: January / February 2010

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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