How do you train for elite sport when a pandemic has threatened your entire season? Simple, according to rising Canadian Short Track Speed Skating star Courtney Lee Sarault: you team up with the opposite gender, start pouring your energy into racing a three-time Olympic medal-winning compatriot and, if all else fails, strap on hockey skates.
The senior Canadian Short Track Speed Skating squad sounds like a fun place to be. With the impact of COVID-19 having thrown most things into doubt, the skaters have had to adapt, and adapt they have. First up, the genders now mix regularly on the ice.
“The [1500m] girls and boys will go together and the specific 500m people, girls and boys, will go together,” long distance specialist Courtney Lee Sarault explains. “That is kind of nice. We don’t normally have that mix with the boys. It adds a little bit of fun to our training.”
Fun and competitiveness seem like the two key ingredients needed in training right now. With a totemic figurehead leading the Canadian women’s squad, it is clear where Sarault finds her competitive edge.
“Kim [Boutin, the PyeongChang 2018 1000m silver and 500m and 1500m bronze medalist] is obviously a really strong Skater so if you do beat Kim it’s a good feeling,” Sarault says, a smile playing round the edges of her face. “It is reassuring that you are strong because she is so strong.
“But I feel like we all have a really fun competition, [we are] competitive between us. All the girls are pretty competitive but friendly. It’s not too bad, no one takes it to heart but it is always fun doing good in the races.”
Boutin, the powerful 25-year-old who topped last season’s 500m ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating rankings after five victories, is clearly a fine example to follow but if Sarault continues her current trajectory it will not be long before she is the one being targeted by the next generation.
The 20-year-old is a self-confessed “late bloomer” having “come from nowhere” to make the Canada squad for the 2017 ISU World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships. Progress was subsequently meteoric, the Michigan-born racer taking overall silver at the 2018 World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships before transplanting her powerful, front-running style on to the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating stage.
Despite grabbing bronze at the senior ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in 2019 in the Ladies’ 3000m Relay, things did not go quite according to plan in 2018/19 but all that is now a distant memory.
“Last season was really a season of having fun and trying to get my confidence back and towards the end of the season my confidence was finally coming back. I would be confident and then have slip-ups during the season but by the end of the season it was a constant incline,” affirms Sarault, who claimed an impressive eight ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating medals during 2019/20 and four at that season’s ISU Four Continents Short Track Speed Skating Championships.
“That is all a lot of us really need, a little bit of confidence. You would be surprised by what people can do if they are a little bit confident and believe in themselves.”
Given those results you can imagine how much she means it when Sarault says it “sucked” that the 2020 ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships were cancelled. Having finished sixth in the overall 1500m 2019/20 ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating rankings and seventh in the 1000m standings, she would have been a genuine medal contender. Like millions of people across the planet, the young Canadian has had to make managing such disappointment a priority.
“We have a specific person to help us with our mental [side]. People forget a lot of sport is mental, especially Speed Skating. If your mental health isn’t right the odds are few will perform like they can,” Sarault says.
The rink has always felt like a safe space for Sarault, hardly surprising considering her dad, former NHL star Yves Sarault, had her out on the ice with him after every home game. Add on an older brother who would use her as his permanent goalkeeper and you can see why she is first pick when the Canadian women wind down a week of training with some informal hockey.
“Camille [De Serres-Rainville] used to play, she’s pretty good too,” Sarault laughs. “Her and I are always battling it out.”
When ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating racing does resume you can bet this multi-faceted skater will certainly be “battling it out”.