By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
Speed skating has become one of the most beloved winter sports in the world. Comparable to running a race by foot, speed skating requires only one skill to win: being faster than your competition.
Female Manitoban skaters have put that skill to use, dominating events and competitions dating back as far as the early 1900s.
These athletes have gone on to win medals nationally and internationally, proving they belong amongst the greatest speed skaters of all time.
Manitoba’s First Taste of Speed Skating Excellence
Betty Mitchell’s career started in the late 1930s and spanned the 1940s. She won the Juvenile Girls Outdoor and Indoor North American Championships in 1942, and followed that performance up by winning the Junior Girls Championship at the 1943 and 1944 10,000 Lakes meet held in Winnipeg and Minneapolis.
The Second World War caused a hiatus in her skating career, but she picked up right where she left off in 1948 with victories in four Senior Women’s competitions: The Westerns in Chicago, The Detroit Free Press Open, the North Americans in Detroit, and the Minnesota Championship.
In 1949, she finished among the top 15 in four different races in the Olympic Style Championships in Norway. Her career was capped off in 1950 by winning the North American Senior Women’s Championship. Betty (Mitchell) Olson is also a member of the Canadian Amateur Speed Skating Hall of Fame.
Mitchell wasn’t the only dominant female speed skater of the 1940s. Eileen Whalley burst onto the scene in 1942, becoming the co-champion in the Senior Ladies Manitoba Open competition. She went on to win this event four more times from 1943-1946.
Internationally, Whalley was the only Canadian to win the Detroit Times 25th Annual Gold Skates Derby and the Harry Carl Trophy for the Women’s Open Mile Championship in Michigan.
She placed third in the North American Championships in 1942 and reigned as champion of the 10,000 Lakes Champion in Minneapolis from 1943-45.
1946 was her final year of competition, and she went out with a bang. She won the Canadian Outdoor Senior Women’s Championship in Sudbury and set two new Canadian records for that year in the 440-yard event and the 880-yard event. Her accomplishments that year landed her as the runner-up for the Lou Marsh Trophy.
An argument could be made that the 1960s and 1970s were Manitoba’s most successful decades for women’s speed skating.
Right in the middle of those triumphs were the McCannell sisters. Daughters of Hall of Famer Donald Grant McCannell, Donna and Doreen put together historical careers themselves.
Doreen McCannell was a natural from a young age. She made her international speed skating debut at the age of 16 at the 1964 Olympics in Austria and finished eighth in the 3,000-metre race. Before returning to the Olympics in 1968, she competed in two world championships and the inaugural Canada Winter Games, where she won four gold medals in the Women’s 500-metre, 1000-metre, 1500-metre and 3000-metre events.
Doreen’s success helped her rack up an impressive number of awards, which included the Manitoba Outstanding Junior Athlete in 1961, the Manitoba Athlete of the Year in 1965, and the Manitoba Female Athlete of the Year in 1968.
Donna McCannell, younger by three years, had big shoes to fill… and fill them she did. She won seven Manitoba speed skating championships and seven Canadian championships between 1962 to 1972.
Within those championships, she set seven Manitoba records in the intermediate and junior categories and 13 Canadian records in the senior, intermediate, junior, and juvenile categories.
Donna, along with her sister, represented Manitoba at the first Canada Winter Games in Quebec City in 1967 and won bronze in the same 3000-metre race her older sister won gold in.
In 1972, Donna represented Canada at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan and finished in the top 25 for the 500-metre speed skating event.
Having national and international success in a sport takes lifelong dedication and a talent that few athletes possess.
Manitoba has been fortunate to claim a select group of special athletes who excelled not only at one sport, but two.
Sylvia Burka, Clara Hughes, and Elizabeth Appleby all experienced athletic excellence in speed skating and cycling.
The two sports use many of the same muscle groups, so they were always able to stay in competitive condition year-round.
Nationally, Burka won her first speed skating title in 1967 and celebrated great success until 1980. In that time, she won five national titles and held over 40 records. Internationally, she won the World Junior Speed Skating Championship in 1973, the World Speed Skating Championship in 1976 and 1977, and won a total of 21 world speed skating titles.
Burka made three trips to the Olympics in 1972, 1976 and 1980. She finished top-10 in an event seven times with her best finish coming at the 1976 games in Innsbruck, when she finished fourth in the 1000-metre race. She was awarded Manitoba’s Female Amateur Athlete of the Century in 2000.
Many Manitobans thought we would never see another athlete like Burka again until Clara Hughes came along in the late 1990s.
Her speed skating career was highlighted by four Olympic medals including a bronze in the 5,000-metre race at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, gold in the 5,000-metre race and silver in the Team Pursuit Women’s race at the 2006 games in Turin, and bronze in the 5,000-metre race at the Vancouver games in 2010. She was also chosen as Canada’s flag bearer at the 2010 games.
Hughes won 13 World Cup medals and six medals at the World Championships. Most impressively, she also found the Olympic podium twice for cycling in 1996, becoming the only athlete in the world to win multiple medals at both the summer and winter games. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2010.
Just like Burka and Hughes, Elizabeth Appleby was a great speed skater and cyclist. However, she also played softball, downhill and water skied, windsurfed, swam, and played golf.
With all those sports going on, she still crafted a 16-year hall of fame speed skating resume.
Appleby won many local, provincial, and Canadian titles and represented Canada at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria where she finished as high as 18th in the 3,000-metre race.
The highlight of her skating career came in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy at the 1976 Junior World Championships. Levin participated in four events, she won three silver medals in the 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000-metre races, and fell just short of the podium by finishing fourth in the 500-metre race.
She was named to the Speed Skating Canada Hall of Fame in 1993 as a result of her hard work and dedication to the sport.
One of Manitoba’s greatest speed skaters ever grew up training on an oval that now bears her name.
Susan Auch participated in five Olympic Games and won three medals: a bronze medal in 1988 for the 3,000-metre relay, a silver medal in the 500-metre race at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, and a second silver in the 500-metre race at the 1998 games Nagano.
Over her 19-year career, Auch added medals at the World Short Track Championships, the World University Games, the Canada Winter Games and the World Cup. Auch was named the Canadian Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1995.
Cindy Klassen also put together a prolific career on the oval. While she won multiple medals at the World Cup, World All-round Championships and the World Sprint Championships over her career, she is best known for her dominance on the world’s highest stage, the Olympics.
Her first appearance at the Olympics came in 2002. She won the bronze medal for the 3,000-metre race and nearly missed the podium with a fourth-place finish in both the 1,500-metre and 5,000-metre races.
The disappointment felt in those narrow misses would be rewarded at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Klassen found herself on the podium winning a medal in all five events in which she took part. She won gold in the 1,500-metre, silver in the 1,000-metre and Team Pursuit, and bronze in the 3,000 and 5,000-metre races.
Klassen was named the “Woman of the Games” and was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canadian Athlete of the Year. Her five medals at a single games is still a Canadian record and she was named Manitoba’s Female Athlete of the Year four times.
The legacy left by these prestigious athletes will surely inspire the next great era of female speed skaters in Manitoba.