Big challenge ahead for Yukon speed skaters

KENAI, Alaska If the Team Yukon speed skaters want to break their 16-ulu record from the previous Arctic Winter Games, they certainly have their…

KENAI, Alaska

If the Team Yukon speed skaters want to break their 16-ulu record from the previous Arctic Winter Games, they certainly have their work cut out for them over the next week.

With just 10 skaters on the team, six less than the maximum number of athletes allowed, they’ll have to out-skate some swift competitors to medal this year.

And though the ultimate goal is to simply have an enjoyable time at the Games, breaking their ulu record would be a feather in the team’s collective cap for all of this season’s hard work, said coach Tom Elliot before practice on Sunday.

“We’ve got fewer skaters than in past Arctic Winter Games, but we’re probably just as strong,” said Elliot. “Actually, I’m going to say we’re stronger.

“I think breaking the record is within reach but it may be hard because, of the three Games that I’ve coached at, this is going to be the most competitive.”

It seems this year the competition has gotten a lot faster.

In the 500-metre sprint, for example, there are many more skaters who have whittled their time down to 50 seconds or quicker than in past years, said Elliot.

At the 2000 AWG in Whitehorse, out of all the participating contingents there were just three skaters who broke the 50-second mark in the 500, while there were five who skated faster than 50 seconds at the 2004 Games in Wood Buffalo, Alberta. This year there are 10.

“It shows the progression in the sport’s development,” said Elliot. “We’re all just getting better and that’s a good thing.”

The current Yukon team is comprised of rookie and veteran AWG competitors as well as skaters from Whitehorse, Watson Lake and Haines Junction.

Jesse Reams from Watson Lake is one of the rookie members but took to the ice like a fish to water, said the coach.

“If the conditions are right, I think he could be under 50 seconds in the 500.”

Though numbers in Whitehorse Rapids club and in Haines Junction are down a little, one thing that has given territorial speedsters a boost is the new Olympic-sized ice surface at the Canada Games Centre.

Longer practice times and more of them were doled out to the speed skaters.

At 14, Melanie Tait is the youngest female skater on Team Yukon but is one of six AWG veterans.

“This time I’m in the same division as I was two years ago, but I’ve improved and hope to get better placements,” Tait said.

These Games are number four for Haines Junction’s Tara MacKinnon, who has collected her share of ulus over the years at the AWG.

“I knew exactly what to expect coming here this time,” she said. “I’m hoping to make all the A finals here and get some gold.”

Like the returning athletes, each AWG for the coach gets a little easier as well, said Elliot. “We know what to expect as well and it’s good to come back and see old friends.”

The competition that kicks off today will be held in two different venues throughout the week — one in the city of Kenai and one down the highway in Soldotna.

The ice looks nice and fast at both rinks, said Elliot.

“We’ll know for sure when we’re on the practice. I think if the ice holds up, and with a bit of luck, we’ll see some records fall.”

But whether or not records are broken, the athletes are looking forward to a week in “Alaska’s Playground.”

“It’s about competition at the Arctic Winter Games but it’s more about meeting new people and having a good time,” said veteran skater Claire Kiemele. “Even if I come dead last but I know I tried hard, I’ll be happy.”

Team Yukon is made up of Kiemele, MacKinnon, Tait, Reams, Alex deBruyn, Brett Elliot, Troy Henry, Ryan Burke, Donald Fortune and Martin Nishikawa with Elliot and Dianne Tait on board as the team’s coaches.