NEWS
10/22/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/22/2016 01:12 EDT

Short-track champion Olivier Jean finding his stride in switch to long track

CALGARY — Olivier Jean aces corners in long-track speedskating. The straightaways are another matter.

An Olympic gold medallist and world champion in short-track speed skating, Jean is accustomed to constant left turns and less skating between them on a smaller oval.

He will get a read on his experiment with long track starting Friday at the Olympic Oval Invitational in Calgary. The three-day competition doubles as Canadian trials for this fall's World Cup races.

Jean (pronounced zhahn) will race the 1,000 and 1,500 metres, but it's the mass start race, now an Olympic event, where Jean's potential is intriguing.

"Right now, it's all about long track and we'll see how everything goes," Jean said. "It's hard to have a well-established plan when a weekend like the one coming up can change so many things."

In addition to helping the Canadian men's short-track relay team win Olympic gold in 2010, Jean is also known for his graciousness towards a competitor who sabotaged his skates.

American rival Simon Cho confessed to tampering with Jean's skates at the world team trials in 2011. After receiving an apology, Jean said he appreciated Cho's honesty.

At six-foot-two, Jean was often told his body type is suited to long track as short-trackers' builds tend to be compact. Jean's long legs were rarely in full stride on short track's tight 111-metre oval.

Long track's clap skates allow for the blade to stay in contact with the ice. Jean says adapting to the skates hasn't been a problem.

But the 31-year-old from Lachenaie, Que., is now revamping his stride to generate speed on the 400-metre oval's back and home stretches.

"It's been really challenging," Jean said. "I've been hurting a lot with my left leg because we're not used to a straight left leg in the straights.

"We're not used to linking many straight steps together seamlessly using your body weight. The corners are pretty straightforward. That's where my strength is now, the corner."

Jean relocated from Montreal, where the short-track team is based, to Calgary to train with the long-track team. He's joined the latter for short stints twice before, but wants to pursue long track aggressively this winter.

A 500-metre world champion in 2012, Jean hasn't abandoned short track. He qualified in September's trials to race World Cups this season. Delving into speedskating's classic version now is a low-risk move in terms of his prospects for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

"Having nine years of short track World Cups, being a world champion, an Olympic champion, I have so much experience that I know this season if I skip a few short-track competitions to explore long track . . . it's not going to hurt my short track at all because I have the experience and knowledge," Jean explained.

He completed his kinesiology degree last year at the Universite du Quebec. Jean was looking for an athletic reboot in his move to long track.

"I'm loving it actually because it's so refreshing having so many new goals and objectives," he said. "In short track, I feel like I've been doing the same thing over and over again and it's hard to think outside the box when you're inside the same environment for so long."

The International Olympic Committee approved mass start for inclusion in 2018. It's a 16-lap race in which all skaters leave the start line together. There are four sprints in which points are awarded.

Mass start incorporates some of the elbows-up contact of short-track races, as well as the cat-and-mouse strategy of passing competitors at the right time in the race. Jean is well-suited to it. 

"He's smart tactically and used to skating certain tactics in order to win in short track," coach Bart Schouten said. "He's very comfortable in a pack, knows how to move in a pack, where to rest and where to be to be able to finish first in the last lap.

"He's absolutely phenomenal in the turns. In the straights, he's got to figure it out still."