By Carol Crenna
Connecting with Olympic athletes when they are competing isn’t easy. They’re busy. Interviews for this article with the speed skating Hamelin brothers, Charles and Francois, were done by telephone from Europe, the World Cup in Alberta, and a training rink in Montreal.
We know that the Hamelin brothers of Sainte-Julie, PQ, won gold at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver for short track speed skating.
But since then, Charles Hamelin has earned several medals including a gold in the 500-metre World Cup event Feb 2, 2013 in Sochi, Russia, and then he and girlfriend Marianne St. Gelais both won short track bronze Mar 8, 2013 at the world short track championships in Debrecen, Hungary.
After the Olympics, his young brother Francois helped lead the team to a gold medal in the 2011 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Sheffield, England, and has been working hard to keep up with his brother ever since.
Here, both Charles and Francois Hamelin took time out to talk about their training, and teach us how to take what we know about health – eating right and exercising – and actually apply it to produce results. Let them inspire you.
Charles Hamelin, 27, started competing at age 10, coached by his father, who is now Olympic team leader. Charles has won approximately 40 medals including 12 golds, and including the two most recent wins.
CAROL: Do you eat well?
CHARLES HAMELIN: We don’t have a strict diet to follow but we do have a nutritionist to give us guidelines.
In the beginning, it was difficult for me when I began living on my own because I didn’t know how to cook. But it’s been over four years now that I have been making my own food so I’m getting better.
I like MacDonald’s, but only have fast food once every month or two. I have to consume a lot of calories so am constantly eating healthy food.
I live with my girlfriend, speed skater Marianne St-Gelais, and we’re always snacking on fruit, vegetables, energy bars, nuts and chocolate milk to get back nutrients used during practice. We always keep a lot of fruit and vegetables on hand in our home.
CAROL: How many hours do you train?
CHARLES HAMELIN: We work out six times a week, twice per day which works out to five to six hours per day all year long. Each practice is from two to three hours long.
CAROL: Do you have a life outside of training?
CHARLES HAMELIN: We try to. Since Marianne is also competing in speed skating, we have exactly the same lifestyle so it helps.
CAROL: Do you ever not feel like training?
CHARLES HAMELIN: There are always times during the year when you wake up and don’t feel like training. But we live an eight-minute walk to the rink so sometimes when I don’t feel like working out, I will push myself just to get there.
And when I see the other teammates, the ambiance – and their energy while working out in the same room – helps to motivate me to train.
One of the best parts about competing even in my teens was meeting friends from throughout the province, who you’d then see at competitions. Now I have friends around the world, from England to Korea, for the same reason.
And the coaches, in addition to the team, are really good at making me want to do more while there.
CAROL: Aren’t you competitive with teammates?
CHARLES HAMELIN: We’re very competitive with each other and try to push each other to go faster and be better. I’m not competitive with my girlfriend, though, since men and women don’t train together. We are stronger so there is not competitive environment with women.
CAROL: You are the star of the team ─ you have won so many competitions. Does that make you feel responsible that you have to help others?
CHARLES HAMELIN: Yes. I try to help them. A few years ago, I was one of the youngest – a rookie there to learn from others – but now, at 27, I am more experienced than others. Therefore, I try to show an example to younger, newer members by doing the sport right.
I learned how to speed skate when I was nine years old, but I first went on the ice just for fun at three or four years old. And whenever our family took a winter vacation, my parents always took their three sons to a rink, lake or river to skate on because we all liked it.
CAROL: Is it still fun?
CHARLES HAMELIN: I began speed skating because it was fun, and only do it now because it’s fun. And I will only do it until it doesn’t become fun… or until I am too old to qualify for the team. My goal right now is to do well at the 2014 Olympics.
CAROL: Have you ever had a serious injury?
CHARLES HAMELIN: No but I have had several concussions and sprains. I always try to stay safe.
CAROL: Isn’t it difficult to skate as fast as you can, but at the same time also try to be safe?
CHARLES HAMELIN: It is. Our top speed can reach 60 kilometres per hour, which seems crazy, but then again, skiing can reach 150 km per hour.
While training, our rink has no boards, just mats placed all around the area where we skate on the ice, so when we fall the mats protect us from any injury. This makes us more confident and able to push harder while we’re actually competing.
The outfit we wear is made from Kevlar which protects from all types of cuts, which occur only if we fall and bump into someone else’s skate.
When I fall, and it doesn’t happen often, for a couple of days during training afterward I’m a little shakier on the ice, and don’t push myself 100 percent because I’m afraid to fall again. And then I forget about it, and become confident again, because the falls happen so rarely.
But I know speed skaters who remain afraid to push themselves after an injury, and it can end their career. It takes mental training. A team psychologist helps during these situations.
Being confident in yourself and your body, no matter what happens, is a quality that you must have to compete.
François Hamelin was the 2008 Canadian Champion, and had four medals with the team and two individual medals in his first two World Cup seasons. He helped his team win a gold medal in his first Olympics.
CAROL: When did you start skating?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: I started skating when I was 5, and my older and younger brother were both already skating then. I just turned 25.
CAROL: When did you start competing?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: When I began competing at age 12, my brother Charles was already competing.
We began competing at a young age because Quebec’s facilities and teams are more established than elsewhere. If you do well in Quebec, you have a good chance of doing well across Canada.
CAROL: Can you explain exactly what you do to train?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: In the morning, we have a warm-up for an hour, and then ice time for two hours, and then a cool down period. And then in the afternoon, it’s weight training, circuit training or more ice time.
We don’t do very much upper body training, because it’s not as necessary for the sport, but we do some so as not to become too unbalanced.
CAROL: What do you eat to train well?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: We make sure that we get adequate protein, carbs and fats in our diet. We can relax our diet on weekends and have more foods that aren’t considered healthy. We never have to be hungry.
CAROL: Competing with your brother, who is two years older. Do you feel you’ve always been following in his footsteps?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: When I was younger I did, but now that we are both competing together, and after the Olympics, I don’t. Even though he may be the superstar of the team, we know that we can all do well. We have a good relationship.
I also have a brother who is two years younger that is was a speed skater, but no longer trains; we all trained together in the past when my father was the team coach. He didn’t have the same passion that Charles and I do.
It is our life, and when you qualify for the Olympics and then win an Olympic medal, it makes you want to focus on it even more.
CAROL: Your father has had a major influence on your training.
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: My father was a motivating factor, as my coach for 12 years, and now is a team leader who ensures that our travel and other details are in place. But he no longer has direct involvement in our training program.
CAROL: Was it difficult having your father always trying to push you to become better?
Not really, because it’s always been this way. I don’t know anything else. He was a very good coach for the team.
CAROL: What do you do when you’re not feeling motivated?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: You have to talk about it. If you keep it to yourself, you are going to have a long year. You have ups and downs.
Though I love skating so I always want to be on the ice, for the other part of training, I sometimes feel that I just want to stay home. Talking about it with the coach makes me feel better.
CAROL: Do you get another life outside of training?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: We do have some spare and social time, especially when it is with the team. My other friends who don’t compete found it difficult — when they’d ask me to go out, it would never fit with my training program.
I feel privileged to be able to compete, especially leading up to the Olympics, so all I want to do is train to take advantage of it.
CAROL: Do you worry about falling?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: I do worry about falling, and everybody does. When we push ourselves, we’re always on edge. I have had four concussions, but I’m still in one piece.
CAROL: What goes on in your head while racing?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: It can depend on the race. But within the last three years, I have learned a lot and gained more confidence. I try to see myself on the podium when not actually racing, but I have realized that you can’t let thoughts go on in your head as you race — you have to focus only on your race plan. It can cost you a medal if you think about anything else or hesitate.
I’m confident that my body is ready and prepared for the race, so don’t think about what it does, or how it feels, or what I have to do during the race.
CAROL: How fast can you skate?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: It depends on how tired I am, and the ice conditions. But the 500 metre world record was broken not long ago by quite a lot so who knows? We just have to keep going, and see how far the sport can reach.
CAROL: Do you have advice for young skaters?
FRANCOIS HAMELIN: You have to like skating a lot, and you have to go for it. You never know what’s going to happen so don’t limit yourself. I’ll admit that I always wanted to go to the Olympics, but when I was younger and not yet on the national team, I didn’t think that not going would mean my career would not be successful. My goal was only to become better.
Original article appeared in VISTA Magazine by Carol Crenna using these interviews.