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Maltese and Blondin skate one-punch speed for Canada at world championships

Maltese and Blondin skate one-punch speed for Canada at world championships

CALGARY – Valerie Maltese and Evanie Blondin have decided they are stronger together.

Maltese and Blondin finished first and second respectively in the world in the women's mass start, giving Canada a one-shot lead in the unpredictable cat-and-mouse event.

The two women lead 19 Canadian skaters at the four-day individual distance world championships that opened Thursday at the Calgary Olympic Oval, where the world's best will compete in 12 individual races and four team events.

Calgary is hosting the World Single Distance Championships for the first time in a quarter of a century, although the Olympic Oval was the site of the World Sprint Championships (2017) and the World All-Around Championships four times between 1992 and 2015.

The mass start is relatively new in a tradition-bound sport, bringing short-track maneuvering and competition to a 16-lap, head-to-head race that includes intermediate sprints for points.

Ottawa's Blondin is a two-time world champion and an Olympic silver medalist in Beijing in 2022.

The dynamic of teamwork emerged in the collective beginning. One skater works in the service of another skater – much like housecycling – to run the overlap, chase down breakaways, and provide the body to pull from behind.

Maltese, from Saguenay, Que., performed that service for Blondin's team in Beijing, but has elected to operate on his own during the 2022-23 season. Malta proposed a more equal partnership last year.

“This season is the first year we've really worked together,” Maltese said. “Before that, I was working for Ivany, and after the games, we would each do our own thing. I didn't enjoy doing that.

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“At the end of last season… I said: My wish is that we work together. It's not me working for you or you working for me. But we're working together to beat the Dutch. I think we can do it. And if we don't, I don't think I can.” I don't want to do any group starts anymore, I don't enjoy going alone against other girls.

“We're both strong skaters, we're smart and agile on the ice. I was like, 'We can work together.'” “I think we've proven that this season. It worked for most races.”

Both 33-year-old women come from short track backgrounds. The duo has finished in the top four in three of six races this season.

Blondin had two World Cup victories and two second-place finishes, but was ruled out of the December race in Norway.

Malta reached the top six in five races, including three podium finishes, to win the season title.

Blondin's first-place finish and Maltese's third-place finish in Salt Lake City was an example of how a partnership can put both in medal contention in the final race when it's every woman for herself.

They worked together to put themselves behind Dutchwomen Marijke Groeneod and Irene Schouten heading into the lap of the bell.

Sharing tactics benefits both, Blondin says. She and Maltese discuss plans for different scenarios for the mass start in advance.

“The other girls look at us and think: 'Shoot, they're working together,'” Blondin said. “I wasn't opposed to it at all. I was looking forward to it because there were years where we were racing and we didn't work together and that was just a big disadvantage.

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“All the other teams, especially the Dutch girls, get into the race and don't care who gets on the podium at the end of the race as long as there's one. They work together very well.”

Maltese and Blondin compete in the women's 3,000 meters to open the world championships on Thursday. Canada is a podium contender in the men's and women's team sprints as is Calgary's Ted Jan Plomin in the men's 5K that day.

Olympic champions Malta, Blondin and Ottawa's Isabelle Weidman will attempt to defend their world title in the women's team pursuit on Friday, when sprinter Laurent Dubreuil of Lévis, Que., and American Jordan Stolz renew their rivalry in the men's 500 metres.

Mass and the men's and women's 1,000-meter race begin on Saturday. The event concludes on Sunday with the men's and women's 1,500 metres, women's 5 km and men's 10 km.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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