By Nolan Kowal, Sport Performance Specialist
Have you heard about our exciting new project? We have teamed up with local author Sean Grassie to publish a book celebrating iconic stories from 150 years of sport in Manitoba.
All proceeds from the book will go to KidSport Manitoba, an organization that provides support to children in order to remove financial barriers that prevent them from participating in organized sport. Once a month, we will be releasing a sneak peak of the stories from our book!
This month’s feature story from Iconic Stories from 150 Years of Sport in Manitoba is about a Manitoban that we all know and love – Cindy Klassen! Klassen recalls the first time she laced up her skates for speed skating, “it was a very humbling experience.”
A short two years later she was skating at the Canada Summer Games for her home province, and the rest is history. In 2002, just five years after making her debut in the sport, Cindy laced up for Team Canada at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. She would later go on to be one of the most decorated Olympic athletes our country has ever seen.
Read the full story below.
A special collection of 6 Olympic medals
CINDY KLASSEN CROWNED CANADA’S ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Cindy Klassen made it a day to remember for a youngster in the crowd watching her 1,500-metre race at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.
As Klassen was warming up for the race, she saw a boy in the stands waving a Canadian flag. Klassen went over to the side of the ice, motioned for him to come down to ice level and then signed his flag.
“I just remember going into that race thinking, ‘I want to show this kid how much fun the sport of speed skating is,’” she said. “So he was a big inspiration for me that day.”
Klassen sent many Canadian flags waving in Torino. She became the first Canadian to win five medals at an Olympic Games, and was also the first female speed skater to win five medals at a single Olympics.
Of the six speed skating races at the 2006 Olympics, Klassen skated in five of them and won a medal in each one. She captured gold in the 1,500 metres, silver in the 1,000 and team pursuit, and bronze in the 3,000 and 5,000.
Klassen was given a bouquet of flowers as she stood on the podium as champion of the 1,500-metre race. The boy she had met before the race was about to receive a special gift. Klassen found him in the crowd and signalled to the spectators to take her flowers up to him. In 2014, he got in contact with Klassen and told her it would be great to reconnect if she’s ever in Toronto. Klassen happened to be in Toronto at the time.
“So I ended up meeting him and his dad and his mom, and he still had those flowers,” Klassen recalled. “He had dried them. He still had them from all those years, and he had the Canadian flag, too, and it was just full of signatures from different athletes.”
Klassen was 26 years old when she captivated audiences with her record-breaking performance in Torino. She had been skating for many years, but mostly as a hockey player.
She took up hockey at about age five and played on boys’ teams growing up.
“She was a defenceman who could carry the puck and obviously skate like the wind, and she had all that athleticism,” said Winnipeg’s Jennifer Botterill, a three-time Olympic hockey champion.
Klassen had her sight set on playing for Canada at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, but she didn’t make the team.
“It was pretty devastating for me because I thought everything was going well and I was really hoping to go to the Olympics,” she said. “My plan was to move to Calgary in the fall of ’97 (to play with the national women’s hockey team), and since I didn’t make it I decided I would just stay in Manitoba, start going to university at the U of M and just focus on hockey in Winnipeg.”
Klassen played volleyball, basketball, badminton and one year of rugby as a student at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute. After graduating, she was left with only hockey.
“So I needed another sport to play and my parents said, ‘Why don’t you try speed skating because you’re a really good skater in hockey?’” Klassen recalled.
She started with the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club at Sargent Park Oval at age 18.
“I went out to the first practice and I thought it would be just like hockey, but faster because the blades are so long,” Klassen said. “I was in for a very huge surprise. It was a very humbling experience because I could barely stand up on the blades and little five-year-old kids are flying past me on the ice. It was pretty crazy. I thought it would be something I could pick up right away, but it took a lot of practise and a lot of patience.”
Soon, Klassen was ready to take the next step in her speed skating career.
“At the end of my first year of speed skating my coaches were like, ‘You know what, why don’t you try giving up hockey for a season and just see what you can do with the speed skating?’” she said. “So that’s what I did. I just focused solely on speed skating in my second year, and I made a decision that if I made the Canada Games team, then after my second year of skating I’d move out to Calgary and pursue it – try to get onto the national team. I kind of surprised myself by making the junior national team.”
Klassen went to the 1999 Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. She wasn’t able to skate, though, due to warm weather that left the ice too soft to hold the races. She made the most of the trip, meeting other skaters, attending other events and soaking up the atmosphere.
She went to her first Olympic Games in 2002 in Salt Lake City in just her fifth year in the sport, winning a bronze medal in the 3,000-metre race.
She had many notable international results leading up to the next Olympics. In 2003, Klassen became the first Canadian to capture the World Women’s All-Round Speed Skating Championships since fellow Winnipegger Sylvia Burka won the title in 1976. In 2005, she became a world champion in the 1,500 and 3,000 distances.
“Going into the 2006 Olympics, I just thought if I can do better than I did in my first Olympics, then I’d be happy,” Klassen said. “That was kind of my goal.”
After capturing five medals in Torino, Klassen was named Canada’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies at the Games. The next month, she won the World Women’s All-Round Speed Skating Championships, sweeping all four distances ranging from 500 to 5,000 metres. Klassen won the 2006 Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year, claiming the honour for the second straight year. She won the 2006 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canadian Athlete of the Year.
Klassen skated in her final Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Canada’s two most-decorated Olympians, as of 2019, are Klassen and Winnipegger Clara Hughes with six medals each.
Klassen was named Female Long Track Athlete of the Year by Speed Skating Canada in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 after sharing the honour with Catriona Le May Doan in 2001.
A multi-sport athlete, Klassen competed at the 1995 Canada Winter Games as a hockey player and at the 2001 Canada Summer Games in cycling. She competed at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria in lacrosse (demonstration sport) and in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg as an inline speed skater.
Klassen was named the 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006 Manitoba Female Athlete of the Year by the Manitoba Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.