It was the fastest 500-meter pairing ever recorded in Olympic womens speedskating competition. As tense fans at Naganos M-Wave gripped with whitening knuckles their red and white Canadian flags, the starter pistol shot, and two of the worlds swiftest took off like greased lightning.
Canadas Catriona Le May Doan, the favorite in the race, was pitted against her teammate and chief rival, Susan Auch. The two were ranked first and second in world competition. Auch sprinted ahead in the first 100 meters, but Le May Doan pushed herself into top gear. "I had to tell myself that I was the strongest skater out there," she told Macleans magazine, "and trust that I could make up the ground on the backstretch." Surging ahead, Le May Doan edged Auch by a microscopic three-tenths of a second!
The moments that followed were a blur of activity, and the next thing she knew, Catriona was standing at the top of the podium, dipping her head as the ribbon of her gold medal was draped over her neck. "(Husband) Bart and I had discussed the possibility that the situation could come up," she says with characteristic modesty. "We thought that when the Canadian anthem played we would just lose it. I was kind of emotional, but not as much as I thought I would be. But we were both still on such a high, the adrenaline was still going."
Le May Doan came back to earth a short while later and was able to enjoy the victory lap she took around the oval. "That was great because it was on my own time, and I got to thank the people in the crowd for cheering for me."
The photo of that golden, shining moment, an instant classic, shows a young woman holding on to her nations flag, her face alight with joy and wonder. Even though the press had heavily favored Le May Doan (along with Auch), the speed skater knew all too well that things dont always turn out as you plan. Take Lillehammer, for instance.
The 1994 Winter Games in Norway were supposed to be the stuff speedskaters dreams are made of. Le May Doan had qualified for the Calgary Olympics at the age of 18, but with 6 years of world competition under her skate laces, the now 24-year-old was hopeful as she headed into the 500-meter race. "(American skater) Bonnie Blair was pretty much assured to win (gold), but I thought if I had a perfect race, I could have been in medal contention," she remembers. "And Im sure I would have."
What happened was every skaters nightmare: During the race, she caught an edge and fell, icing her dreams of wearing a bronze or even silver medal. Auch won the silver. "I dont think I really dealt with it," she admits. "You build 4 years around one race
." Her voice trails off a bit. "I was sort of only good at one race back then. After the race, I began to question things, asking myself, Why did this happen?" she says.
Every good question deserves an answer, and Catriona was already well on her way to finding the ultimate answer: Jesus Christ. She had been dating Bart Doan, a Christian, for 2 years, and had already peppered his father, a pastor, with questions about the Bible.
Bart and Catrionas romance will go down in winter sports history as a classic pairingalong with the Protopopovs of Olympic figure skating fame and other elite athlete couples whose motto in dating was "cold job, warm heart." She was the champion athlete, the golden girl on skates; he was the man who made it all possible, whose work meant the difference between gliding on ice and clomping along on the hard ground. She was the speedskater; he was the Zamboni driver.
Making the ice at Calgarys Olympic Oval, which experts call the worlds fastest, was only a seasonal gig for the cousin of Phoenix Coyotes hockey player Shane Doan. In warmer months, Bart rides in the amateur and pro rodeo circuits as a steer wrestler. But there was more to this friendly, good-looking cowboy than his Western charm. "I dont think I can put a finger on it, but he was really genuine somehow," Catriona says. She began to date Bart despite the fact that she wasnt committed to Christ and he was.
"Bart was careful not to pressure me," she recalls. "He knew that if anyone ever pushed me in anything, I rebelled."
After Lillehammer, she saw a simple sign with the words "Athletes in Action" and a phone number. "I dont know now why I called," she says with a laugh. "I guess I thought, Im an athlete, and I thought it applied to me." Soon afterward, Le May Doan met with AIA staff person Harold Cooper, a friendly, fatherly man who has since become a spiritual mentor to "Cat," as her close friends call her.
"Harold went through the gospel with me, but it was sort of all too much at once," the 28-year-old remembers. "He asked me if I wanted to become a Christian, and I was like, Well, maybe I will talk this over with Bart first. I was trying to postpone it. A few weeks later, though, I decided that was the choice I wanted to make."
Since that momentous decision to give her life to Christ in the summer of 1994, Catriona has established herself as the worlds top female sprinter. She garnered the gold in the 1996 world championships, a silver the following year, and of course the recordbreaker in Nagano, where she became the first woman to traverse 500 meters in 38:21 seconds. In all her personal victories and defeatsa reality of any sportshe tries to integrate her faith with her emotions. Where Catriona used to become debilitated by failure, now she is able to process it through a Christian worldview.
"Anyone who is a Christian has a different perspective on life," she says. "People have asked me how I can be so competitive, how I can be aggressive when I am a Christian. I always answer that you are given a gift, and you are to use it to the best of your ability.
"There is more of a peace, especially in sports, where there is a Lets go for it attitude, and less control over what happens than in the work world. (My faith) is a comfort, and it gives me a different reason to be doing the sport."
When she won the gold, Catriona Le May Doan captured Canadas heart. "Skating for me has been an area where I can be vocal about my faith," she reveals. "Especially now that I am at the top of the standings, people are more aware of me and what I stand for."
As she trains for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Le May Doan wonders what those Olympics, most likely her last, will bring. "Salt Lake is probably excited about all these people coming to their city to hear about their religion (Mormonism). So it is a great opportunity for Christians to bring it on, to say, Lets talk."
If anyone can command the attention of the watching world, and present the truth in a sincere, everyday manner, its Catriona. She feels that her opportunity to testify in media interviews "can be a faith builder for Christians. It can also make other people really think."