Thursday, February 12, 1998
Canadian moment overshadowed
They sat and they listened and they watched as a Japanese national hero was born.
It seemed so odd that on one of the greatest nights in Canadian Olympic history, the world wasn't all that interested. The world was fascinated by the first Japanese individual to win a gold medal in 26 years -- the first since Yukio Kasaya won in ski jumping in 1972 -- and only the second in history.
The prime minister called to offer congratulations. Women cried. Cameras clicked. Flags waved. And television replayed the speed skating race over and over again, much to the delight of the Japanese people.
And there sat Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer and Kevin Overland of Kitchener, almost solemnly, on a night in which Canadian skaters finished 2-3-4-5 -- almost the skating equivalent of a straight flush -- listening to the story unfold. They were almost spectators in one of the greatest moments of their lives.
It truly hit home in the news conference later when a reporter asked Overland a question and addressed him as "Neal.''
"I take it that one's addressed to me,'' Overland said. "My name's Kevin ...''
He could have continued. He could have said, "I just won a bronze medal and we were 2-3-4-5," but this is a place of decorum, so he merely smiled during the most telling moment of a dominant Canadian night.
Where to begin with the story? There were so many stories. Here was Shimizu, the world-record holder but not a popular athlete in Japan, not famous until now. By today, he may have his own television show. Speed skating is a kind of afterthought sport here. It's a sport for other countries.
But here was Shimizu, all 5-foot-3, one foot shorter than Wotherspoon, the smallest speed skater on the world stage, living an Olympic cliche, living out a dream. The other night, he dreamed he won the 500 metres, he dreamed he won the gold medal and in his dream he cried. And as he stood on the podium, with the gold medal around the neck, there was a moment in which he wasn't certain if this was real or still the dream.
Kevin Overland could understand that feeling. He started skating when he was seven in Cambridge. He never thought a moment like this might happen. When he didn't have any money to train, he needed the Kitchener Moose Lodge to back him. "I was hurting for money,'' he said. "I needed support."
And even after arriving here, he was never thought to be a medal contender, not in this race.
"It's a little bit surreal right now, I don't know what to feel,'' he said. His father and his fiance were in the stands watching. His mother, who hates the pressure of the sprint, will arrive in Japan in time for the 1,000-metre race.
The most incredible aspect of the Canadian finish is that the 500 isn't supposed to be the team's best event. The 1,000 metres is.
You almost have to take a deep breath and a step backward to appreciate the moment. It wasn't simply a two-medal day for Canada. There was sheer dominance. Canada had but four skaters in the race: Wotherspoon second, the underdog Overland third, Sylvain Bouchard fourth, and Patrick Bouchard (no relation) fifth.
"That's how good this team is,'' said Wotherspoon, who was either the calmest Olympic silver medallist in history or the least excited. You could almost see how he was replaying the first day's race in his mind, how a slip sent him to seventh place and how he recovered on the second day. How another medal awaits him in the 1,000 metres.
But there was sheer joy for Kevin Overland. He comes from a long list of the unexpected. "I just wanted to make the podium. I didn't care what color I won, I just wanted a medal,'' he said.
"I didn't get a lot of attention. I didn't have a lot of pressure on me. I guess that was good for me. The great thing is, the 500 isn't even my best event. I'd love to win a gold in the 1,000.''
Jeremy Wotherspoon, 21, was all business about his second-place finish. Second place isn't what he is about. You can tell that by the expressions on his face.
The night before the 500 final, Wotherspoon played Trivial Pursuit with two of the Canadian coaches. The coaches wanted to get him into the right mood for his race. They let him win.
No one had to let Hiroyasu Shimizu win yesterday. He was that fast. He skated into the history books, the place Jeremy Wotherspoon seeks so desperately. He'll get there. It's only a matter of when.