SPORTS

Christine Nesbitt connects with childhood rival and Olympic inspiration

06/11/2015 05:08 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
In a heartfelt first-person account, Christine Nesbitt described how her stellar speed skating career was shaped by a mysterious rival from grade school who taught her something essential about perseverance.

Nesbitt, who retired on June 4, wrote the retrospective piece for CBC Sports recalling a trio of cross-country races against another young girl.

A native of London, Ont., the 2010 Olympic gold medallist had a rival from another school she couldn't beat. From grades 4 through 6, Nesbitt finished second, always in maddening fashion, behind this girl Laura at the city finals.

Nesbitt recounts specifically the last race in Grade 6, where she was running side-by-side with Laura during the final stretch before doubts overcame her.

After Nesbitt lost by "an inch, or maybe a foot," her mom asked why she gave up.

The title of Nesbitt's piece is appropriately named: "The day I quit for the last time."

But it left two gnawing questions.

Who was Laura? Who was this girl that turned out to have been one of the biggest inspirations to the Olympic champion?

Finally, it was answered.

The mystery girl was revealed to be 30-year-old Laura Roberts. The Collingwood, Ont., resident is now a massage therapist, but she hasn't been living out her life in anonymity.

Roberts played soccer at Central Michigan University and was a teammate of former CBC Sports reporter and current Sportsnet anchor Carly Agro.

She was a four-time national soccer champion (two with North London and two with Team Ontario). She also completed two full marathons and a handful of half marathons.

Nesbitt's article was passed on to Roberts by a former classmate. When Roberts read the humbling story by her former rival, she thought: "Holy shit, she's talking about me!"

The article prompted this tweet from Roberts to Nesbitt:

20 years later

The opportunity was too much to resist.

CBC Sports arranged a meeting between Nesbitt and Roberts through a conference call. After some nervous laughter broke up the initial awkwardness — they haven't seen each other in about 20 years, after all — the conversation quickly turned to those three races in grade school.

Laura: I remember you for sure. You were taller than me so I remember you looking down at me a lot.

Christine: Laughs.

Laura: I remember that last race [Grade 6], we were all kind of in a pack together, and I didn't like running cross-country. I just wanted it to be over with. But I just remember thinking this is the last race and I was just taking off and I'm sprinting as hard as I can to the finish and I won. I just thought to win that one and I would be done with cross-country.

There was a girl at my school that would often come second all the way up to the city finals, and I just would always think, "I need to beat her," so I didn't think too much about you except for every year thinking "I hope she's not here, I hope she's not here."

Christine: [Laughing] That's like the same thing I say about you.

Laura: Then I saw you and I would be like, "Ah shoot." Because we would only meet in the final, we would never race against each other before then.

Christine: I remember the first time we met and it was my first city finals, and I was this little cocky nine-year-old kid and I'm like, "I'm going to crush everybody." And then there's this girl who's so much better than everybody. That put me in my place.

Laura: I remember you being right behind me.

Christine: I always remember it just being the two of us. Maybe I was so focused on you, but I remember us being really edging ahead of the pack.

The two, now more comfortable with the discussion, shift the focus to the Vancouver Olympics. 

Christine: It's been a long time, I'm kind of embarrassed. It's been 20 years and I don't know how accurate some parts are but that was kind of how I saw it. You did kind of have a big impact on me, on who I became and definitely the athlete that I became. So thank you.

Laura: No problem. When I read it [the article] I thought this is awesome. When you won an Olympic medal you did one of the most amazing things that you can do…. It surprises me that it took you that long to realize you would appreciate the medal, because you think you had such a bad race. But from an outsider watching you and at the medal ceremony you looked like you were in shock. But I appreciate you. It was awesome and you had an amazing career.

To have a positive effect on you and to be part of such a cool moment [the Olympics], because I was glued to the TV, I watched the race and I was cheering for you — as a Canadian but also a fellow Londoner. When you won it was pretty cool and I definitely told a few people I used to beat her in cross-country.

Christine: You had an impact on my life in a good way, even though I was mad at you at the time. It was sad that I couldn't beat you.

Staying in touch

As the phone chat came to an end the customary topic of staying in touch was raised.

Christine: I'm going home next week [to London] so if you want to meet for coffee? I mean you probably have a job so…

Laura: I've moved up to Collingwood so I'm a bit away from London.

Christine: That's true. If I'm in the area I'll definitely send you an email.

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