German speed skaters try the territory

Yukon College employees have to find somewhere else to put their cars this week. The college parking lot has become an impromptu skating oval for a…

Yukon College employees have to find somewhere else to put their cars this week.

The college parking lot has become an impromptu skating oval for a group of teenage German speed skaters, and the media crew that follows them.

The skaters’ coach brought the cameras here.

Speed skater Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann is a superstar, Germany’s equivalent to Wayne Gretzky.

She dominated the long track in the ‘90s — winning Olympic gold medals in Albertville and Nagano — and she holds a record 98 World Cup victories and 19 world championship titles.

Now she’s in Whitehorse, passing on her skating expertise to the next generation – and taking advantage of the city’s plentiful sports and recreation facilities.

 Niemann-Stirnemann and her husband, Oliver Stirnemann, a physical therapist, brought six skaters from a sports-focused high school in Erfurt, Germany, (where one of the country’s two long track ovals bears her name), for a 12-day training camp.

“People in Germany asked us, ‘A training camp in Canada? Why?’” said Oliver, as Gunda led the athletes in warm-up exercises on Tuesday morning.

“Canada paid for it, that’s why!”

More accurately, Tourism Yukon, Yukon Convention Bureau and the Yukon Amateur Speed Skating Association, along with Whitehorse, is hosting the group, and the German media, in an effort to spread the word for the Yukon as a sport-training destination for international athletes.

And the Germans like what they see.

“It’s perfect, perfect for practice,” said Stirnemann, pointing the college residence, where they group is staying.

He also noted that the athletes are enjoying free entry to the Canada Games Centre and use of the weight room at Better Bodies Crosstraining Centre.

They appreciate the seeming endless highways for cycling.

“Winter sports athletes do their hardest training in the summertime,” said Stirnemann, as the six skaters donned their five-wheeled inline skates on the grass of the college.

“You have amazing facilities here,” he added.

After the Canada Games, Whitehorse is flush with sporting spots, and bringing in the international dollars can’t hurt.

“We’re trying to sell the Yukon for the future,” said Holger Bergold, who represents Tourism Yukon in Europe, and was instrumental in getting the training camp off the ground.

“I’m sure it’s going to pan out.”

Bolger met Niemann-Stirnemann when she competed in the Fulda Challenge in January.

After that experience, which included a flight over glaciers near Haines Junction and winter camping, as well as the various extreme sports events of the Fulda Challenge, Niemann-Stirnemann was eager to return to the Yukon.

“It’s perfect,” she said through a translator, when asked about Whitehorse as a training locale. “If only it was a bit higher, altitude-wise — then everyone would come here. But for younger athletes, that want to get to a higher level, it’s great. Staying at the college, we have everything we need.”

It’s not all work for the athletes — on Monday, they met musher Rod Taylor and toured his kennel at Uncommon Journeys, getting some authentic Yukon experience.

The Germans will continue to work at their training camp until July 31, and Niemann-Stirnemann is planning to return in January for the Fulda Challenge.