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Five-time Olympic medallist Hamelin headlines Canada's short-track team for Beijing

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Short-track speedskating star Charles Hamelin has become a Canadian fixture of the Winter Olympics, an almost sure bet to climb the medal podium.

But at 37-years-old, and with the COVID-19 pandemic upending the Canadian team's preparation, nothing is routine around what will be Hamelin's fifth and final Olympic appearance.

"(Beijing) is I think the hardest one, yes, a little bit because of the age, but for sure because of the pandemic, it didn't put us in a perfect situation," Hamelin said. "Well, everyone on the planet is not in a perfect situation. But for us athletes being away from what we love the most, and what we need to do every single day of the year was difficult, and it changed us.

"I think we adapted a lot."

The skater from Sainte-Julie Que., who has five Olympic medals including three gold, headlines the 10-member Canadian short-track Olympic team announced Tuesday. The squad is a mix of veterans, including Hamelin and Olympic medallists Kim Boutin and Pascal Dion, plus seven skaters who'll make their Olympic debuts.

"I think we might just have the strongest team speedskating Canada has ever sent to the Olympics," Susan Auch, Speed Skating Canada's CEO, said during the team's virtual unveiling Tuesday.

Despite the COVID-19 upheaval, the Canadian team rolls into Beijing on the heels of 17 World Cup medals captured this fall.

"That was impressive for a very, very young team," said Marc Schryburt, the team's high performance director. "If we take away the 37 years of Charles Hamelin, we are very young."

"We got four years to prepare for Olympic Games, and two of those four years were under pandemic," added Schryburt.

Hamelin won the 1,500 metres — his 12th world title — at the world championships last spring, the Canadian team's first international competition in more than a year due to COVID-19. 

Hamelin saw a silver lining in the pandemic. He had time to focus on areas of his training often neglected amid the crazy competitive schedule. He said his ability to adapt has been what's kept him among the top in the world since his Olympic debut 16 years ago.

"And I'm still able to be performing well, on every level in 2022," Hamelin said on Tuesday's Zoom call, his one-year-old daughter Violette gurgling in the background.

Hamelin is tied with short-track speedskaters Marc Gagnon, who'll be an assistant coach in Beijing, and Francois-Louis Tremblay, and figure skater Scott Moir as Canada's most decorated male Winter Olympians.

Boutin, the world record-holder in the 500 metres, won a silver medal and two bronze four years ago in Pyeongchang, and was selected Canada's flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies for her outstanding Games debut. 

"I can't believe it's already time to reconnect with the Olympic rings," said Boutin. "I'm returning to the Games, but this time my eyes and heart will be wide open and I'm going to take in every single moment."

The 27-year-old from Sherbrooke, Que., stepped away from speedskating during the pandemic to focus on her mental health.

"I've been through a lot of challenges and I realized that I was kind of a control freak about those elements and that I needed to go to accept the difference in the challenges," Boutin said. "I feel I'm a different person (from four years ago), I'm a different racer too, I feel like I can more race with my head right now."

Boutin said the focus was on racing well, not winning medals. 

"It's really to be at peace with the ice, to be present in each race," she said. "I know that I'm really a good competitor. I feel like I'm (among) the best skaters in the world. . . . so I'm focused on: I know that I can win this race, but I know that I'm a part of a big, big, big bunch of good skaters. It's an exciting process instead of pressure to win the race."

Dion is the team's other veteran. The Montreal skater won bronze in Pyeongchang. 

Canada has a tradition of excellence in short-track, racing to 33 Olympic medals — nine gold, 12 silver and 12 bronze — since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1992 in Albertville. It's the country's most successful Winter Games sport behind only long-track speedskating (37 medals).

The team was chosen based on performances at four ISU World Cup Short Track competitions this fall. 

Head coach Sebastien Cros said he's excited about the team.

"We have a good mix of experience and youth, and we showed great potential in the first part of the season thanks to a bold and proactive strategy in our races," he said. "The objective will be to approach the Olympic events with the same energy in order to replicate this level of performance."

The rest of the team is made up of Montreal's Maxime Laoun and Alyson Charles, Steven Dubois (Terrebonne, Que.), Jordan Pierre-Gilles (Sherbrooke, Que.), Danae Blais (Chateauguay, Que.), Florence Brunelle (Trois-Rivières, Que.) and Courtney Sarault (Moncton, N.B.).

The alternates are William Dandjinous and Camille de Serres-Rainville, both of Montreal. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press