Charles Hamelin parlays grit and gut instinct into a record-tying Olympic gold medal

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Charles Hamelin of Canada, who won the gold medal in men's 1,500-meter short track speedskating celebrates during the medals ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Sochi, Russia
Charles Hamelin of Canada, who won the gold medal in men's 1,500-meter short track speedskating celebrates during the medals ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

SOCHI, Russia — Charles Hamelin crossed the finish line first, hands high, then circled half the rink and slid to a stop. He hugged his coach and his father. He grabbed a Canadian flag. He did a victory lap, found his girlfriend, belly-flopped atop the padded wall and gave her a big, fat kiss.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means Hamelin has tied the Canadian record for gold medals in the Winter Olympics. He now has three in his short-track speedskating career. Yes, it means he has a chance to break the record – maybe even obliterate it. His strongest events are still to come in Sochi: the 500 metres, the 1,000 metres and the 5,000-metre relay.

But no, that’s not what this meant to him. He said he didn’t know about the record and if he were to set it, well, that would just be the “cherry on top.” No, to him, what this meant was that all the work he had done to refine his racing and push his legs to a new place had come together at the right moment so he could win his weakest event: the 1,500 metres.

“We wanted to show the world that Canada is part of the 1,500 metres, and today was the day,” Hamelin said Monday. “And I did it.”

The 1,500 metres is the longest race on the short track for an individual. It takes the most strategy and endurance, because skaters maneuver for a while and then sprint at the end of the 13 1/2 laps. “The 1,500 metres,” according to Hamelin’s father, Yves, the short track team leader for Canada, “is a killing race.”

[Related: Charles Hamelin produces another golden day for Canada]

Hamelin finished fourth in the 1,500 eight years ago in Torino, where he won silver on the 5,000 relay team. Then he finished seventh in the 1,500 four years ago in Vancouver, where he won gold in both the 500 and the 5,000 relay. He was unsatisfied.

Mentally and physically, he needed to adapt. He needed to learn not to get rattled if someone passed him or bumped him, not to waste energy trying to keep his position or regain it when it didn’t really matter. He needed to learn to conserve his energy better and wait for the right time to make his move.

He needed to change his body so when he got to the front, he could stay there. Instead of starting to train around May or June, he started in mid-April and kept going until mid-March. He trained twice a day more often than before. He skated more laps at a higher pace than before. It became his routine until Sochi – more months, more hours, more speed.

“We’ve challenged him more in training,” said his coach, Derrick Campbell. “Charles shows up every day, and he trains his ass off. He’s professional. He’s coachable.”

Hamelin passed a little test in the semifinals Monday. He didn’t see Great Britain’s Jack Whelbourne, who bumped him on the way by. Once upon a time, he might have tried to battle with Whelbourne in the corner. “I would have maybe fell,” he said. But this time, at age 29, a little more than two months from 30, he kept his head and his speed, and he quickly passed Whelbourne.

The plan for the final: stay in the top three until the right time, then take the lead and control the race. Hamelin led early, then fell to second, then fell to third, waiting, waiting. About halfway through the race, Hamelin regained the lead.

How did he know when to go?

“My instinct,” Hamelin said, with a sly smile. “That’s what my coach tries to remind me race after race. ‘Rely on your instinct, because you have the best one in the world.’ ”

Hamelin kept accelerating. He looked strong. “That’s the hardest, hardest part of leading, just to make it progressively fast,” said his brother and teammate, Francois, who didn’t qualify for the final in the 1,500 but will race in the 5,000 relay. “He’s been doing it so well, and that’s what he did in that race. Nobody could pass him.”

Despite a close call on his third-to-last turn, catching an edge on a soft patch of ice, Hamelin didn’t lose his balance or his position. “I just had a little unstable moment,” he said, “and after that I was like, ‘OK, calm down, race smooth and finish the race.’ ” Hamelin led for the final five laps. China’s Han Tianyu won silver, Russia’s Victor An bronze.

“All that work paid off,” Hamelin said.

Hamelin’s coach and father both called it “perfect.” Hamelin’s longtime girlfriend and fellow Canadian short-track speedskater, Marianne St-Gelais, called it “beautiful.” Francois said: “He did it as a pro. He managed it as he always does during the year. He controlled the race, made it his own and brought home the gold for Canada.”

Now that Hamelin has conquered the 1,500, he has an excellent chance to make the record his own. Only five other Canadians have won three golds in the Winter Olympics, and four of them are women’s hockey players: Jennifer Botterill, Jayna Hefford, Becky Kellar and Hayley Wickenheiser. The other is Marc Gagnon, another short-track speedskater.

Hamelin’s father said though sometimes skaters lose a little in the 500 when they train for the 1,500, he had not. His girlfriend said the 1,000 was actually his favorite race, the one he wanted most. His brother said in the 5,000 relay “I believe we have the strongest team.” So stay tuned.

“Honestly, I don’t think he’s thinking about it, but for sure he can do it,” St-Gelais said. “I know him. I know how he trains. I know what he’s capable of.”