Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Like walking on a high wire' - Skate star Hamelin pushes the limits

By Chris Murphy and Brooke Bowman, CNN
May 29, 2013 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
HIDE CAPTION
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Speed skater Charles Hamelin says his sport is like walking on a wire in the air
  • Hamelin is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and has eight World Championship titles
  • When he is racing he says the only voice in the crowd he can hear is that of his girlfriend's
  • Hamelin says it isn't the strongest but the smartest competitor who succeeds

CNN's Human to Hero series screens every week on World Sport. Click here for show times, videos and features.

(CNN) -- Amid all the noise and chaos of a short-track speed skating final, there is one voice in the crowd Charles Hamelin can hear as clear as a bell.

It belongs to his girlfriend and fellow speed skater Marianne St.-Gelais, urging the Canadian on to the finishing line in a competition that is as thrilling as it is dangerous.

Hamelin likens his sport to walking on a wire in mid-air, but despite the precarious nature of his chosen discipline, he can always make out her voice above the din.

"She's the only person I can actually hear when I'm skating," the double Olympic champion told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"She's really loud in the stands but it's like her voice gives me energy. If I know she's there it gives me belief in myself."

They are both targeting next year's Sochi Olympics in Russia, with St.Gelais -- now 23 -- having won two silvers at Vancouver 2010 while Hamelin became a national hero with two golds on the same day.

"We live together and I know what she's doing and she knows what I'm doing, and it's a good thing to have someone to talk to about everything we love the most," Hamelin said.

Read: Weightlifting's petite warrior tames Twitter trolls

That reassuring presence is clearly key for the 29-year-old from Quebec, in a sport where the margins are miniscule.

With competitors haring around the ice at speeds that often near 40 mph, any involuntary nudge or bump can be fatal to their chances of glory.

Lady weightlifter challenges stereotypes
Skating star's thrill of the dance
World's oldest runner's 'secret' routine

But for Hamelin, who has successfully negotiated his way to eight World Championship titles as well as those two Olympic gold medals, that flavor of danger fuels the adrenaline that keeps him coming back to the rink.

"When we go at our fastest speed it's at the limit. You can't hold it but if you do, if you just let it go, you're going to fall," he explained.

"It's like you're walking on a wire in the air, and if you make a little step in the wrong direction, you're going to fall.

Read: Japanese figure skating star's Sochi plans

"I think it's a thrill to be on every corner -- every two seconds we have a corner. It's a kind of a thrill doing a fast lap in short track and for us, that's what we love, and that's why we are great at it."

Strength is a prerequisite for any speed skater but Hamelin underlines the importance of being able to marry that power to shrewd in-race tactics.

Rules forbid speed skaters to intentionally bump their fellow competitors out of the way but contact is inevitable in the jostle to take each corner first.

Hamelin's ability to steer the right course and adopt the proper tactics has seen him consistently hit the line ahead of his rivals.

"In short track there's more strategy, there's passing, there's bumping, there's a lot of action in short track, and it's one of the reason why it's a popular sport in the Olympics," he said.

"You're not allowed to push anyone, you're not allowed to actually touch anyone, but for sure in a race you're going to have to pass inside or outside and are going to bump a little bit.

From Afghanistan to the rugby pitch
Olympic champion: Sailing is not elitist
South African cyclist: Never give up

"It's not the strongest guy on the line who will win, it's the smartest; the guy who will do the best race, who will win the race, and it's a good thing."

Read: World's oldest marathon man, 102

The risk of crashing is high, as is the risk of injury, so skaters learn from a young age how to survive the tumbles.

"When you know how to fall, the injuries are less and less, and you have a better chance to stay healthy," Hamelin said.

"If you get injured during the summer, and you miss two or three weeks of training, then the year will be tough for you and not because you're not a good skater.

"You have three weeks to catch up on everyone, so at our level it's really difficult to do that and we try to avoid any big injury, especially when it's an Olympic season."

Speed skating is a sport that runs in the blood of the Hamelin family.

Charles' brother Francois has also enjoyed success at the top level, as they formed one half of the Canadian relay team that secured gold in the 5,000 meters at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Their father, Yves, is the program director for Canada's short skating stars, and led the team to five medals in Vancouver.

Francois started skating when he was five and Charles was soon hooked too. Their younger brother Mathieu also took up the sport and the family would spend hours on the ice honing their technique.

Charles says it was when he turned 17 and made the World Junior Championships that he dared to dream that his goal of making the Olympics could become a reality.

Read: From the front line to the try line

It's like you're walking on a wire in the air, and if you make a little step in the wrong direction, you're going to fall
Charles Hamelin

It did at the Winter Games in Turin in 2006, and though his silver medal was an impressive return on debut, it only strengthened his resolve to hit the top of the podium four years later in front of a home crowd.

"It was my day," he recalls. "In the 500 meters I got the gold with a crazy race, a crazy finish, and 30 minutes after I came back on the top of the podium with all my teammates to win gold in the relay.

"Two golds in the one day, in 30 minutes, it was the best day of my life."

With a lifetime ambition fulfilled, some may have been forgiven for thinking Hamelin might take his foot off the gas but if anything, his Olympic success has only galvanized his love of competition.

"When you reach the top of Canada or the top of international competition and you touch the podium, you get the feel of it and you just want to repeat it," he said.

"I just want to stay there as long as possible and that's what keeps me wanting it more and more and more.

"Most people ask me why I continued after Vancouver because I won two gold medals, but I say, 'I love my sport and I love to win, so I want to keep doing it and be better at it.' "

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Rachel Atherton is a world champion in downhill mountain biking, one of the most extreme of all the cycling disciplines.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0935 GMT (1735 HKT)
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0142 GMT (0942 HKT)
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.
ADVERTISEMENT