Spartan Training Pays Off for Sáblíková and Coach

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Spartan Training Pays Off for Sáblíková and Coach
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"You can have a boyfriend, just don't fall in love. If you fall in love, everything is over, you might as well quit." Those are the words of Petr Novák, a former ice hockey player, who today coached his star pupil, the Czech Republic's Martina Sáblíková, to gold in the three km speed skating race.

Silver went Germany's Stephanie Beckert, and Kristina Groves of Canada claimed the bronze. While the strong Canadian team wasn't favored over this distance, the rather surprising and confusing streak of Canada's inability to win Gold at a domestic games continues, and if the speed skaters will be the ones to end it, it will probably not happen before Thursday, when the Ladies' 1000m race takes place.

Sáblíková's win is, in general, surprising for a few reasons. First, that she is frail and slightly built in a sport where stronger, bulkier women are the norm. This gives her a natural advantage, she has less air resistance and also less energy she needs to expend to keep moving forward, compared to the diesel motors that are required to power girls like Beckert or Clara Hughes.

But this brings its disadvantages too. Sáblíková often struggles with illness, and seems far less capable than her opponents to hold her form through long series of races. But with months to prepare, and only a handful of races to complete, the Olympics seem made for Sáblíková.

The second reason for surprise is her nationality. She isn't German, Dutch, or Canadian, the three countries which have historically traded dominance over the longer distances with the women. The Czech Republic has never really had any speed skaters to speak of, and yet today it boasts a dominant Olympic and World Champion.

Of course Sáblíková and her phenomenal talent is the main reason, but one would be remiss if her coach Petr Novák did not receive some of the credit. Now at 61, Novák was for many years the sole driving force behind speed skating in his country. After falling in love with the sport as a young man, Novák was finally put in charge of the Czech speed skating program in the late 1980's. With no facilities and a shoestring budget on which to operate Novák's journey to lead his country to skating greatness was a long one, for how do you manufacture greatness in a country with about 20 speed skaters?

His answer came in the late 90's, taking the form of a young twelve year old girl he spotted one afternoon at a rollerblading contest. Her name was Martina, and she had the natural talent that Novák had been struggling to find for 10 years.

Slowly building a team around Sáblíková wasn't easy, given that Novák barely had 10'000 euros in state funding to work with, commercial sponsorship for skating being non-existent. For years he drove Sáblíková and her training partners around in a ramshackle old bus he had bought with his own money to find training facilities and races to win. He was the trainer, the coach, the physiotherapist, the manager, and also the bus driver.

Novák set a ferociously hard training regimen for his star pupil, working Sáblíková hard every afternoon when she finished school. He demanded complete dedication and obedience, and from young Martina he received it, and so potent was the formula that by the time Sáblíková was 17, she was already competing with the professionals of the sport.

Other trainers looked at Novák sideways, often commenting that he was working the poor girl to death, but Novák knew his star pupil, and never deviated from his set course. And as Sáblíková started to win, and win European and World titles, more money flowed in, so much so that Novák's core team now comprises 12 skaters, all young talents for the future.

Now 23, Sáblíková has turned into a fiery and independent young woman. Her character would conflict horribly with Novák's style of training. But all that is for tomorrow, today success should be celebrated.

And the final pair crossed the line today, both failing to best Sáblíková's early time, there were two ecstatic people in the Richmond Olympic Oval. One was of course Sáblíková, having risen to the top of the skating world. But cheering almost as hard was Petr Novák, whose 20 year labour of exceptionally tough love had finally paid off, his life's work was also vindicated. A project he started before the Gold medalist herself was born had finally produced a golden result. Hats off to both of them.

Tomorrow: Men's 500m

In what figures to to be a veritable all-out war where anyone of seven or eight men could take the gold, look out for Canadian boy Jeremy Wotherspoon. Now in his mid-thirties, this great sprinter has never had luck on his side at the Olympic games. But now with his last chance to take a gold, in his own country, here's hoping that Canada's streak ends tomorrow, and that Wotherspoon will be the man to do it.

Other top competitors are Kyou-Hyuk Lee and Kang-Seok Lee of South Korea. Tucker Fredricks will represent a medal chance for the United States, Keiichiro Nagashima and Yuya Oikawa will defend the impressive Japanese history in this event, and Mika Poutala is a one-man Finnish speed skater army.

Outsiders include China's Fengtong Yu, Dutchmen Jan Smeekens and Ronald Mulder, Russia's Dmitry Lobkov and Canada's Jaime Gregg.

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