Feb. 16, 2018

Canada's long-track women make the grade at UCalgary

Speedskaters balance studies and sport on path to Olympic Games
Marsha Hudey will compete in the 500 metre long-track speedskating competition at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Marsha Hudey will compete in the 500 metre long-track speedskating competition at the Pyeongchang Ol Mike Ridewood

It can be a challenge for athletes to pursue elite sport and academics at the same time, but the proximity of the Olympic Oval to the University of Calgary has made it possible for many of Canada’s best long-track speedskaters to strike a fine balance between achieving good grades and skating fast times. 

A legacy of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, the Olympic Oval is the only high-performance speedskating facility adjacent to a university anywhere in the world. For two skaters competing in Pyeongchang who live and train in Calgary, this perfect pairing has enabled the pursuit of excellence around the track and on campus.

Marsha Hudey, above, is Canada’s top female sprinter and will compete Feb. 18 in the 500m at the Olympics, her second trip to the Games. She completed her Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation at the Cumming School of Medicine in 2013, a feat she accomplished in just five years, which is blazing fast compared to many athlete-students who often take upwards of 10 years to complete their degree.

Hudey was racing primarily on the Canada Cup circuit during those years, which made juggling school and skating somewhat less daunting. Still, her commitment to education is something of an anomaly in high performance sport. “I decided I wanted to do it,” says Hudey. “I just said, ‘I’m in it, in it till I’m done.’”

  • Read more about UCalgary athletes competing in the Pyeongchang Olympics, and show your support for the athletes by sending your wishes online. 

This attitude is admirable, according to Cara Button, director of stakeholder relations and game plan adviser at the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary. “The hard part is that athletes are inherently high achievers and don’t like making concessions when it comes to school work,” she explains. “That makes long absences from school and missing exams more difficult for them if it means they can’t put in the work they want to.”

For Isabelle Weidemann, however, a second-year geology student and first-time Olympian, school is a welcome and positive distraction from the stress of training and competition. The long-distance specialist is competing in the 3,000m, 5,000m and Team Pursuit events in Korea between Feb. 11 and 22, but she’ll also need to carve out time to study — she’s still taking one class this semester. 

“School has been such a big part of my routine and I didn’t want to switch it up,” explains Weidemann, 22. “I’ve never had problems balancing it and it’s not a big stress.” For her, the hardest part is making up labs that she misses while on the road, but stresses that “Google is beautiful” and she relies on it often to be her own teacher. 

Isabelle Weidemann tries on her Team Canada jacket at the announcement event in early January.

Isabelle Weidemann tries on her Team Canada jacket at the announcement event in early January.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

For the time being though, the focus turns to the Games in Pyeongchang, and both Hudey and Weidemann are medal threats in their respective races.

Hudey won her first World Cup medal this season, a silver in the 500m in Stavanger, Norway. Since Sochi, her ascent up the international rankings has been steady and, at 27, she can now count herself among the best skaters in the world.

Going into these Olympics, Hudey is ready, especially compared to four years ago when she says she felt like a fish out of water, having only competed on the World Cup circuit for a couple of months before qualifying for her first Olympics. She finished 31st in the 500m, but this time around it’s a different story.

“I’m taking experience from the last four years into the Games,” says Hudey. “This time I know more, like how to better manage my energy.” This self-awareness will serve her well as she and her fellow competitors attempt to unseat Nao Kodaira of Japan from the top spot. Kodaira is unbeaten in the last two seasons in the 500m, but Hudey remains fearless.

“There’s always a special factor at the Games,” she contends. “It’s so different and unique from everything else. Anything can happen and things do happen. I’m going into the Games with an open mind and a clean slate.”

Weidemann’s best chances are in the Team Pursuit, where Canada won two bronze medals this season — the first podium finishes in this event since 2013. The young skater has also been steadily climbing the rankings in her individual races — she earned a career-best fourth in the 5,000m at the Stavanger World Cup this season.

Hudey and Weideman are keen to show the world what they can do on sport’s biggest stage — they have earned that right and recognize the opportunity as a special one. “I’m really excited for the Olympics, to have fun and embrace every day,” says Hudey. “Skating is such a beautiful sport, and I’m always working for that.”

Several other members of the Olympic team are University of Calgary alumni or current students, including Urban Studies student Jordan Belchos, who is competing in the 10,000m and Team Pursuit at his first Olympic Games; Josie Morrison, a student in the Faculty of Science, competing in the 1,500m and Team Pursuit; luger Alex Gough, a civil engineering student in her fourth Olympics; Brianne Jenner, who received a Master's in Public Policy in 2017, competing on the women's hockey team; and Keri Morrison, who graduated with a Bachelor of Kinesiology in June 2017 and is competing in Mass Start and Team Pursuit (no relation to Denny Morrison).

Kristina Groves, BSc’04, MSc’15, is a four-time Olympic speedskating medallist. She currently works as a sustainable energy consultant, freelance writer, and TV analyst for CBC Sports.