Short-track speedskater Isabelle Charest to lead Canada’s team at 2018 Olympics

Short-track speedskater Isabelle Charest to lead Canada’s team at 2018 Olympics

Former speed skater Isabelle Charest is seen during a press conference to announce her new position as the Chef de Mission for Canada’s Olympic team heading to the 2020 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, in Montreal on Monday, February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS.

MONTREAL — Isabelle Charest knew she wanted to remain involved in sports when she retired after winning a short-track speedskating bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

That dedication paid off Monday when Charest was named Canada’s chef de mission for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Charest will be the spokesperson, mentor and head cheerleader for the 200-plus Canadian athletes at the Games.

“When I was competing, the role of chef de mission wasn’t exactly the same,” Charest said. “It’s evolved in the last few Games.

“I’m not sure I ever thought of that when I was competing but when I finished I knew I still wanted to be involved in the Olympic movement. I’m very privileged to be able to do this now.”

Charest, 46, is one of a new breed in the job. Where once it was mainly sports administrators who led Canadian teams, only former Olympic athletes have been chosen for recent Games.

In fact, having been an Olympian is now a requirement for the position.

Charest, a native of Rimouski, Que., competed at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Games, winning a medal each time.

“Before, they weren’t as present, not as close to the athletes,” she said. “I didn’t even know who the chefs de mission were when I was competing.”

She won’t be going in cold. Charest was chef de mission at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2016 and, with Carol Huynh, was an assistant to chef de mission Curt Harnett at the Rio Olympics last summer and 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

“We were looking for an accomplished athlete who understands the unique challenges that Olympians face and is able to guide them on this journey,” said Tricia Smith, the former Olympic rower who’s president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “The athletes see this person as their spokesperson, their leader, their inspirer.

“Someone they can talk to. You can see with Isabelle everyone will feel comfortable going to her.”

Charest currently works for the Val-des-Cerfs school commission southeast of Montreal. She’ll spend the next year getting to know the Canadian team and making sure all is ready for the Games.

Canada is a world power at the Winter Games and expects to finish among the top countries in medal standings, even if the team hasn’t set a specific medal target for 2018. A 222-member squad captured 25 medals, including 10 gold, at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia and can expect another strong haul based on results this year in skiing, freestyle skiing, all forms of skating, curling, hockey and other sports.

“I really want to bring the team together,” said Charest. “Teamwork is really important to me.

“Our goal as a team is to have every aspect of preparation in place for the athletes to be in the best environment possible. My role is to help bring them that environment.”

It helps that Charest is familiar with South Korea, Canada’s top short-track rival. And she has credentials as an athlete.

After making the national team in 1988, she became one of the best 500-metre racers of her era. Charest set a world record at that distance in 1997 while winning one of three world championship gold medals in her career.

She was named Canada’s short-track skater of the year from 1995 to 1997 and is a member of Speed Skating Canada’s hall of fame.

She won a silver medal with the 3,000-metre relay team at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994 and added bronze medals in the relay at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan and in Utah four years later.

“Of course my experience as an athlete will help me bring the focus to the athletes and what they need to be successful,” she said.

Charest choked up at the Olympic House news conference when she mentioned the job entails spending time away from her husband Steve Charbonneau, a former Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos defensive lineman, and their two children. But she hopes they’ll be able to visit her in Pyeongchang as they did last summer in Rio de Janeiro.

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press

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