Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio has been saying the all the right things for nearly four years.
He’s lost count of the number of times he’s been asked about famously giving up his spot to teammate Denny Morrison at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the 1,000-metre race; Morrison captured a silver medal because of it.
That storyline follows Junio everywhere he goes.
When asked about it, he smiles, talks about how grateful he is to have shared that moment with Morrison and speaks eloquently about the importance of team work. But he’s tired of it all.
“It’s kind of frustrating that it overshadows everything,” the 27-year old from Calgary said. “I’m humbled that I was able to play a part in this amazing story but I wanted to move on three years ago and start writing my own story.”
Junio was awarded an honourary medal for his sacrifice in Sochi. Now, he’s targeting an Olympic medal of his own in Pyeongchang. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)
Junio is coming off one of the worst speed skating seasons in his career. He lost focus, intention and the belief he could be an elite competitor for Canada. The disastrous season was partly due to a concussion he suffered, but had more to do with being distracted by things he couldn’t control.
It got so bad, Junio was left off Canada’s World Cup team for the last half of the season. He needed something, anything, to spark his speed skating belief again.
It just so happened to come from Jeremy Wotherspoon, widely regarded as one of the greatest sprinters in speed skating history, Wotherspoon captured silver for Canada in the 500 at the 1998 Nagano Games and currently works as a coach with Norway’s speed skating team.
“I went into a meeting with Jer at the end of last season and asked him if he thought I could win a medal at the Olympics. Because if not, I wasn’t going to go to Norway,” Junio explains.
Wotherspoon, when asked by Junio if he could win a medal, said “why not,” setting Junio’s comeback into motion.
Leaving for Norway
If Junio wanted to get back on Canada’s World Cup team heading into an Olympic year, he knew he had to change things up. He packed his bags at the beginning of May and headed for Norway to train with his new coach.
“I was looking for a change in environment and was looking for some fresh eyes,” Junio said. “Working with Jeremy over there has been an amazing experience trying to learn as much as I could from him.”
Junio spent nearly three months over the summer relearning a sport he had been doing for years. He says he needed to take an entirely different approach to it.
“I’m not a big guy. I don’t have the physical strength a lot of the bigger guys do. So I’ve prided myself on working harder and trying to push through practices. But now it’s about not working harder but smarter.”
Junio says Wotherspoon provided a fresh perspective on his training. They spent the summer together working on precision, intention and “making sure every stride is important.”
‘Why not me?’
With the summer away from Calgary and Speed Skating Canada behind him, Junio returned to the Olympic Oval in Calgary this fall with a newfound swagger and confidence. It would be put to the test in the fall World Cup qualifications in October.
In what turned out to be two highly competitive 500 races, Junio finished first ahead of Laurent Dubreuil by two-hundredths of a second. He left, returned, and beat every Canadian skater.
“It’s a big relief,” Junio told CBC Sports after the race. “I took a risk going to Norway and coming back and seeing the hard work pay off is a big relief. It’s definitely a good starting point.”
After the race, Junio got a text message from Wotherspoon, who was watching online from Norway. All the message said was “Nice!”
“That’s all he’s going to say. He lets me know you’re only as good as your next result,” Junio said.
Junio is back on Canada’s World Cup team this year and is preparing for the second event of the season this weekend in Stavanger, Norway. Wotherspoon will be there coaching Junio. All of these races are leading up to what Junio hopes is a podium finish in Pyeongchang and — more than anything — the beginning of the rewriting his story.
“I wanted to win a medal in 2014. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and intention in everything I’m doing,” Junio said.
“Why not me to win a medal? It’s there. I just have to put some of the ego behind and get back that belief.”
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