By Brendan Shykora
The parallels run deep between Ottawa speedskaters Noah Bouma and Rachel Freitag. The two long-trackers used to carpool to competitions as far as Lake Placid, NY, while splitting time between the Ottawa Pacers and the Gloucester Concordes, the city’s two speedskating clubs. After high school, both made their way to Calgary to train at the indoor oval that’s home to the top skaters in the country.
Most importantly, the two share a love for going fast. That’ll come in handy as they prepare for the Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta., starting February 15.
Bouma is coming off a blazing January in which he logged a personal best in the 1000m at the Canada Cup, and another in the 5000m at the Junior National Championships.
The 19-year-old finished 14th at last year’s junior nationals and might have improved on that ranking this year had it not been for a disqualification in the 1500m. During the race, an official noticed some exposed skin around his ankle guard and was forced to uphold Speed Skating Canada’s stringent safety rulebook.
But while defeats by technicality can be the most frustrating in sport, Bouma’s positivity never wavered.
“There’s a lot of racing ahead and I have a lot of opportunities to compete. It was a decent race but it wasn’t a personal best, so I wasn’t really mad that I didn’t get the time,” Bouma said.
He started competing in long track in 2010 – a year with no shortage of Canadian stars to look up to.
“I really got into it when I watched the Vancouver Olympics,” says Bouma. “I just thought it was really cool and was inspired by the Canadian team. So I decided to give it a try and I’ve loved it ever since.”
At the University of Calgary’s Olympic Oval – a pristine indoor facility – Bouma trains 6 days a week without fear of disruptive weather. It’s a far cry from the training conditions in his home city. Ottawa’s Brewer Park is home to the only long track in the province, but it’s an outdoor oval in a city known for sporadic winter weather.
“Skating outside, you’ll have the coldest and harshest days,” explains Bouma. “Almost every day is different, whereas in Calgary every day is the same.”
“That’s one of the first things that I noticed coming to Calgary, that it was actually warm when I skated!”
Freitag, 18, also remembers those winter training months in Ottawa. “It’s definitely difficult. Last year I think there were probably about 20 good days of ice time that we got, and not consecutively.”
“It would get really cold and then it would warm up and all the ice would melt,” she recalls. “The volunteers put in countless hours, and we really have them to thank for all the ice that we got.”
Since moving to Calgary last fall, a consistent training schedule has translated into big gains for Freitag. “At the start of the season I was seeing drastic changes in my performance, and in my races I was getting pretty big new personal bests.” The proof is in the time sheets: this season, she shed a full 10 seconds off her personal best in her favourite distance, the 3000m.
With the Winter Games approaching, she feels she’s not done improving. “I still have a couple more competitions so hopefully that time will go down even further.”
Freitag knew by age 7 that speedskating was her sport.
“I was doing the Learn to Skate program, just on hockey skates, and at the end of my practice the speedskaters would come on, and I thought they looked super cool,” Frietag recalled.
She signed up for speedskating the following season and hasn’t looked back.
Little has changed since the days when 7-year-old Freitag would speed around the rink on hockey skates, competing with her friends to see who was the best skater of the bunch.
“I love the concept of whoever’s the fastest (and) the strongest will win,” she says, explaining why she wants to stick with the world’s fastest human-powered sport for as long as she possibly can.
“Just the thrill of going so fast – it really drives me.”