SPORTS

Celiac disease makes Olympic speedskating champion alter her fuel

11/06/2013 06:45 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
CALGARY - Olympic champion speedskater Christine Nesbitt feels more streamlined heading into this racing season. A doctor's diagnosis of Celiac disease earlier this year forced a change in her diet.

The 28-year-old from London, Ont., who is the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder in the women's 1,000 metres, adopted a gluten-free diet in May. Nesbitt has noticed a difference in her life and in her sport.

"I've learned it's not normal to be bloated every single day of your life," Nesbitt said Wednesday. "I'd look 10 pounds heavier at the end of every day.

"My stomach's not great, but I think it takes awhile for your intestines to heal. Definitely a lot of the symptoms have disappeared."

According to Canadian Celiac Association, the condition doesn't allow the body to absorb nutrients because the small intestine is damaged by gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Nesbitt found she recovered faster from hard training days in the summer after altering the food that fuels her.

"I think that's just the ability to absorb the nutrients better in my food and I'm not basically fighting what's going on in my stomach," Nesbitt said. "I think my body is just being fed more efficiently. My body is happier.

"I think it's made a difference in my summer training and that I assume will transfer to the skating season."

She leads a Canadian long-track team of 25 skaters into the season-opening World Cup starting Friday in Calgary. It's the largest Canadian World Cup team ever, according to Speed Skating Canada's long-track director Sean Ireland.

Calgary is the first of four World Cup events prior to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February. The Essent ISU World Cup in Calgary will include about 300 athletes from 29 countries.

Men and women will race 500, 1,000, 1,500 metres and team pursuits. There will be a women's 3,000 and a men's 5,000 before racing concludes Sunday.

"It's a great way to get Canada's attention leading up to the Olympics to start off the season here in Canada," Nesbitt said.

Retired speedskating champion Clara Hughes will be inducted into the Oval's Wall of Fame on Saturday.

The Olympic Oval in Calgary and the oval in Salt Lake City, Utah, both lay claim to the fastest ice in the world because of dry, cold air and high elevation in both locales.

Every current long-track record has been set in either Calgary or Salt Lake, including Nesbitt's mark of one minute, 12.68 seconds she established in January, 2012.

Even though the speedskaters want to peak in February, both Nesbitt and world champion Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., think more world records could fall in Calgary.

"It's not unrealistic at all," Morrison said. "World records when they're broken, they're broken here or in Salt Lake City. The ice is fast and the skaters are fast so we'll probably see some world records."

Morrison won the men's 1,500 metres at the 2011 world sprint championship, but missed three months of racing last season after breaking his leg cross-country skiing in December.

He says he's fully healed and that he posted some of the fastest lap times of his life at a recent training camp in Salt Lake City. Morrison believes the Canadians can exploit their home-ice advantage at the Oval.

"Less travelling for us and an opportunity to race on our home ice, where we have a good feel," Morrison said. "We know it's fast and we know what we're capable of on this ice.

"A lot of Europeans come here and they're not used to the fast ice. They go into the turns with a bit more speed than they're used to. You have to lean a little bit more to offset the extra speed and centrifugal force.

"For them, they're not as comfortable as us having trained on this ice every single day."

Nesbitt compares the adjustment her rivals must make to driving a race car.

"When you haven't trained on fast ice it's like driving a car five kilometres an hour faster when you're already at a max speed," she explained. "It doesn't sound like a big difference, but the handling is different.

"It's that small stuff that makes a difference in a race. You can make mistakes, have little slips or fall."

Canada's Olympic team will be announced after trials in January, but the skaters introduced Wednesday will be racing to gain as many Olympic quota spots for Canada.

In the women's 1,000 metres, for example, the Olympic race in Sochi will be capped at 40 skaters. The number of racers each country can enter will be determined by results and fast times in the season's first four World Cups, starting with Calgary.

Canada can take a maximum of 20 long-track skaters to Sochi, but the team has to earn those spots first. With Calgary and Salt Lake the first two stops on the circuit, it's a chance for the Canadians to post fast times and gain berths.

"I'm confident in my ability and know that I can skate well and well enough to do what I need to do and qualify Canada some spots, but February is definitely when I'm going to be at 100 per cent," Nesbitt said.

MORE:cpSports