Behind every Olympic medal there is a big dream backed by a lot of sweat and work. But not every drop is provided solely by an athlete. Many people are working around the clock to make sure their athlete and/or team gets to the Olympics on peak form.
On a day-to-day basis, an athlete's staff takes care of their mental and physical health, prepares their equipment, and watches their nutrition (among a myriad of other duties).
You will not see them on the podium, but you can read about them in our new series: The team behind the team.
In our first installment, we take a look at Team Canada's short track speed skating team and technician Laurent Daignault, who, as an athlete, coach and short track technician, has participated at seven Olympic Games.
So, what exactly does a short track technician do?
One can tell a lot about Daignault's daily work by the items that adorn his office walls. Old national team short track tricots on the wall. A bunch of blades hung up without any names assigned to them; Daignault recognizes which athlete the blades belong to by their curve.
For those of you who don’t know: short track speed skating is a sport in which athletes skate at high speed for short distances on ice. And they skate fast: 50km/h fast.
In addition to their athletic ability, the equipment a skater uses also plays a crucial role. All skating boots are custom-made and built precisely for the athlete's foot. There are two curves on every blade, and the combination of the curves’ radius helps an athlete glide and turn. The way they glide on ice can make a decisive difference in a medal event, and Daignault knows it better than anyone else.
Let’s just make one thing clear: trusting your technician with your blades before competing at the Olympics is like trusting your heart to the hands of a surgeon.
Daignault describes how skaters form a somewhat surprising bond with their blades. “Some athletes give their blades special names,” Daignault says. “The goal here is to have a perfect set-up and fitting blades. I named one of the blades ‘Wonder Woman’. Sometimes athletes name their blades as their pets, or a person they like the most. Samuel Girard named his after his granddad. It creates a special connection to the equipment and gives them a positive feeling when they put their blades on.”
An Olympic journey starts in Montreal
1 August 1976. The Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in Montreal.
7-year-old Laurent Daignault and his brothers are running around the city streets in celebration of the occasion.
“I remember the excitement,” Daignault recalls. “I remember thinking that I liked the spirit of the Olympics and that I wanted to be a part of it someday.” Daignault and his two brothers would all go on to have outstanding careers in sport, but no one knew it back then.
Daignault would compete at the Games, though his Olympic dream did turn out differently from what he had imagined as a young boy.
In 1992 short track speed skating made its Olympic debut at the Albertville Winter Games. Daignault was a member of Canada’s men’s 5000m relay team, and skated in the semi-finals as he helped his team qualify for the gold medal race. However, Daignault was subsequently dropped for the final by his coach in favour of another skater, meaning Daignault had to watch the Canadian team win silver as a spectator.
As he did not compete in the final, he didn’t get the medal on the day of the event. “It was a mix of emotions,” Daignault says. “I was super happy for our team. Then, when my team members asked me to step with them on the podium, somebody stopped me. They didn’t want me to be there for TV. It was mentally tough to experience that moment”.
There was some consolation for Daignault, though, as a rule change that allowed athletes who compete in semi-finals to be awarded with medals meant he would receive his Olympic silver in 1994 - two years after the competition.
Short track is a sport full of surprises, which isn’t a shock given that athletes are competing in extremely tight quarters with plenty of blade-to-blade contact. One such surprise came for Samuel Girard in the 500m at PyeongChang 2018, when the Canadian’s blades clashed with those of a Hungarian athlete at the start line of the race.
Describing this experience as “very stressful”, Daignault’s heart sank as he watched the precious blades “shutter and explode”. Daignault was very quick in replacing the blades under the enormous Olympic pressure.
“Usually when you change blades, it's never really that easy. And [an athlete] never feels perfectly the same sometimes. My role is to ensure that they do not feel any difference. That moment we changed the blade and Girard qualified for the final round, it felt like he was skating on the same blades or like nothing happened. That moment was very satisfying for me.”
It’s about every little detail
As Daignault and other Canadian coaches are readying one of the world’s strongest teams for Beijing 2022, every detail counts in their preparation. “It’s all about every little detail of what we do every day to make the athletes in a good environment. For sure. That helps. I think having an athlete perform at a high level is what makes our job so satisfying. We live every moment with them. When they perform, we are very happy and excited for them.”
While there is some ‘information exchange’ between the technicians of different nations, Daignault smiles when he admits that yes, there are secrets he keeps in his job. “You want to keep some secrets, like a personalized setup for athletes; you want to keep that stuff only between you and them.”
One thing is not a secret: top Canadian stars like three-time Olympic Champion Charles Hamelin, young talent Courtney Saralault (who brought Canada two silvers and one bronze at the last ISU World Championships in the Netherlands) and three-time Olympic medalist Kim Boutin can all have one thing less to worry about once they get to Beijing — their blades will be in excellent hands.