Arriving at the specially built, newly surfaced, 200m banked track instantly smothered all my visions of glory and grandeur. A speedskater is a finely tuned athlete with the grace, form and, of course, strength to match any world-class sports-person. I was not a finely tuned athlete with the grace, form or strength to match a world-class sportsman. I was a lousy thirteen-year-old who could barely skate compared to these mighty pillared-leg individuals. Why did I ever come to the warm-up? Now it will take that much more effort to get out of bed tomorrow to race, and you know what the training program always says, “NO extra effort before a race”.
The 300m individual time trial. The one and only event I believed I had any chance of placing in whatsoever. The theory was that within 300m what counted more was acceleration rather than top speed. Therefore the top-end speed advantages of being a finely tuned athletic individual would make little difference in time trial times thus giving us a chance, albeit remote, of placing. We couldn’t have been more wrong. When times around the twenty nine second region began to appear on the display, the realisation (one that would continually haunt us throughout the championships) came to us that there was little hope of placing anywhere but last. Our time trial times being in the 36 second region. Hmmm… digging a small hole and burying my head seemed a far better prospect than doing what would have been my favourite event. When my team mate clocked a thirty six point five second time trial we could do little other than console ourselves with rather pitiful little phrases such as “oh, but it’s the experience that counts” or “but they’ve trained more than us”. Yeah, great, I thought to myself, as if there wasn’t much we could have done about that! Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let the fact that I was TOTALLY CRAP interfere with my doing the best time trial that I was capable of, whatever that meant.
The start line looked interesting. It was a big, white line. Not that I expected anything else, just that I somehow thought that this start line would be somehow different. On either side of the line were tripods upon which cylinder-like devices aligned with each other – the electronic timing equipment. As I settled myself on the line I noticed that my presence was attracting a lot of attention. Hushed comments were echoing from all sides in many different languages, all alien to me. That didn’t matter, one only had to hear the tone they were whispered in to ascertain the content of their comment. This was it, this was the time to be brave, I may not have been anywhere near the standard, but this was the day when I was going to prove to the world that I was worthy. In retrospect, my vocal ‘uttering’ at the start must have sounded akin to an old woman’s dying scream. However, I heard no giggles, just silence. My start was, and still remains, the showpiece of my time trial. At Nagano, my time trial start was referred to by many, including Masatoshi Takahagi (the Japanese bloke who won the time trial) as “the most intense, sudden, powerful and controlled burst of energy and rhythm he had ever seen”. He had little to say about the rest of the time trial. Although I only managed a rather pathetic 35.15 seconds, my time trial start earned me respect and a ‘place’ (whatever that meant) in the world of Asian competitive speed skating. When looking back, I realise that it is this respect that has distinguished me from my comrades on the Hong Kong team. I later found out that my split at 50m was a whole two seconds faster than the leaders. Incredible, I did the first fifty 50m more than two seconds faster than anyone else in Asia.
The rest of the races were no more enjoyable that the time trial. I would start, get into a rhythm, blow (skating lingo for “collect enough lactic acid in your legs to supply Switzerland’s yoghurt industry”), then get lapped and subsequently eliminated. This unfortunate chain of events was not entirely unwelcome. It meant that I could come off, get changed, recover, and grab my camera in time to take a few good snapshots of the finish. The rest of the Hong Kong team had fallen into apathy. One particularly memorable comment went along the lines of “where do you exit once you get eliminated”. I responded to this with my usual well spirited “don’t be silly, you won’t get eliminated” which I, of course, knew to be a lie. I felt it was important, however, to have someone there to push the team in the face of insurmountable adversity. I would always (try to) inspire my fellow teammates with lines such as “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials”. In many ways the most memorable adversity that changed my life at the Asian Championships was my trying to be positive amongst all the negativity and pessimism.
My taste of international competition was very harsh, much harsher than I would ever expect anybody to endure. Aside from being a constant torture, every day being reminded of your inadequacy, it was, to me, a tremendous learning experience. I met many unique people from many unique cultures. I also learned that people respect you far more for the effort that you put in rather than your actual achievement. I got many a pat on the back for my troubles though I rarely placed higher than fifteenth (out of twenty). The many lessons that I leaned from my ‘baptism of fire’, I have carried with me in life. They have always been there to inspire me during hard times. It has also helped motivate me to be as excellent a speedskater as I can be. It launched me over an invisible barrier essentially carrying speedskating from being a hobby into a very serious sporting commitment. I have since won many medals in various Hong Kong championships and even Victorian championships. My 300m time has come down to a far more respectable 28.643 seconds (good enough for gold at Asian championships) placing me sixth in the Victorian open men’s championships. “The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire”. I will never forget Nagano ’95.