NEWS
11/12/2015 05:56 EST | Updated 11/12/2016 00:12 EST

Discontented speedskaters form own team, racing World Cup outside national squad

CALGARY — Some of Canada's top speedskaters have broken away from the national team and will race the first World Cup of the season as independents.

Calgary's Kaylin Irvine and Regina's Kali Christ, who both represented Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics, are among a group of speedskaters who have formed Team Crossover outside the national long-track team.

Both women qualified at fall trials to race at the World Cup starting Friday at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.

Speed Skating Canada revamped its coaching system this season, which meant a coaching change and a shift to a different training group for Irvine and Christ.

"We both tried the new training environment for a couple of months," Irvine said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't at the level where I thought I could reach my best potential.

"If I don't believe I have the right platform to be the best I can, it just got to the point where I wasn't motivated to go to the training.

"We voiced these concerns several times within the organization. My input as an athlete wasn't respected and a better alternative wasn't given to us."

Irvine, 25, and Christ, 24, each qualified to race three distances in Calgary. Winnipeg's Shannon Rempel, an Olympian in 2006 and 2010, is also member of Team Crossover and will compete in the 500 metres.

Irvine finished 18th in the 1,000 metres at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Christ was 16th in the 1,500, 21st in the 1,000 and fifth with the women's pursuit team.

Speed Skating Canada assigned Irvine's former coach Xiuli Wang, who oversaw former Olympic champions Clara Hughes and Christine Nesbitt, and Christ's coach Todd McClements to groups of developmental speedskaters this season.

"I was put into a group that I was not really enjoying," Christ said. "I just didn't feel I was progressing the way I wanted to.

"It was not an option to go with my previous coach, Todd, so the only option I had was in this group which wasn't going to work for me. I decided to leave to Team Crossover."

It's a clash of athletes wanting to win now in the peak of their short careers versus the federation's philosophy of building depth of talent for the future.

"We have a developmental system in place where we always have a stream of athletes coming up the system," Canadian team head coach Michael Crowe said. "Part of that was placing some of our valued coaches in the development stream where we thought we really needed some help.

"Change is hard and is harder on some than others. What we're hoping to develop is athletes don't just have their one coach they feel they have to rely on, but they have a whole organization and a bunch of coaches, a whole team behind them.

"I don't think that message was maybe conveyed that well in the beginning to the athletes. They felt more that things were being taken away and didn't see what the possibilities were moving forward."

Athletes who have fallen short of making their national team have joined or formed their own "professional" teams to attract sponsors and raise money.

It's more rare for athletes to voluntarily leave the their national federation and go it alone. One example is downhiller skier Larisa Yurkiw.

When she was dropped from the national alpine team, the skier from Owen Sound, Ont., paid for her own training and travel via sponsorships and qualified to race in Sochi.

When Yurkiw's results met the standard to return to the national team, she chose not to because she felt Alpine Canada's women's program wouldn't meet her needs.

But stepping outside the national team means no access to its services and support: massage, physiotherapy, sports psychology and sport science.

Team Crossover has a volunteer coach. Both Irvine and Christ hope they will continue to receive their monthly Sport Canada funding as "carded" athletes, but aren't entirely confident they will if Sport Canada deems their team isn't "elite" enough.

"This is pretty unusual to train out of your national sport organization and it's a really hard endeavour," Irvine said. "We don't have the resources that Speed Skating Canada does, but there's so much passion in our team.

"Although this is the most dirt-poor route to try and get better, my coach respects me and respects my input. I respect all my teammates and so we have that going for us."