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Fitzgerald takes title in “Heiden-esque” fashion

Rachel Mallard of Canada, competes at the Olympic Speed Skating Oval in Lake Placid, won the women’s overall title in the Heiden Challenge. (Provided photo — Christie Sausa)

LAKE PLACID — In a performance that was described by many as “Heiden-esque,” Tommy Fitzgerald of the United States defended his title in the second-annual Heiden Challenge, while Rachel Mallard of Canada won the ladies title for the first time.

The Heiden Challenge took place in Lake Placid on Saturday and Sunday. Named for Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, the competition began a year ago as the last metric race of the Lake Placid Speed Skating Club racing series.

Unlike the rest of the metric meets hosted by the club, the Challenge required meeting at least one distance’s time standard to enter, which is generous enough to allow most regular Lake Placid race competitors entry. Just as Heiden raced five distances and won them all, the winner of the Heiden Challenge is determined based on the all-around points earned by skaters competing in five distances over two days.

Despite the warmer weather in the week leading up to the event, the race weekend temperatures were in the teens. Races began with the 500 meter contests for both men and women on Saturday, Feb. 29, and was followed later in the day by a 3,000 meter race for the women and 5,000 meter races for the men. In the afternoon, the 1,500 meters races took place for both.

Skaters returned on Sunday March 1 with the 1,000 meter race for men and women, and from there, the top four overall were chosen to skate in the final long distance. T

American Tommy Fitzgerald won four out of five events on his way to taking the men’s title in the Heiden Challenge in Lake Placid on Feb. 29 and March 1. (Provided photo — Christie Sausa)

The top four women, Mallard, Claire Liew, Daria Vogt, and Hayley Murray, all of Canada, skated the 5,000 meter as a final. Mallard won first place, which was especially gratifying considering her sister Claire won the title last year.

“I was really happy with my racing this weekend, especially the longer distances,” Mallard said. “The conditions were good and I set some nice outdoor personal bests. We have one more big meet in Calgary in a couple of weeks, the Canada Cup finale. I am feeling confident after my results at the Heiden meet, and that should help me to perform my best in Calgary.

“I was also happy to have a chance to replicate Claire’s result from last year,” Mallard added. “She has been really supportive and was eager to follow the results closely throughout the competition.”

Meanwhile, Murray and Liew rounded out the podium with second and third, respectively.

Liew represents Canada but lives and trains in Lake Placid with the Adirondack Speedskating Club, and despite training here and becoming accustomed to the Olympic history, she was still excited to compete during this historic year.

“I was so honored this weekend to be able to compete during the 40th anniversary of Eric Heiden’s gold medal legacies,” Liew said. “As a skater who’s been training here for a while, it’s always nice to see the faces new and old that come down to compete and watch. Skating this meet was a blast.”

The top four men — Fitzgerald, Gabriel Martin, Ryan Gibson, and Sam Hurtubise — raced the 10,000 meter final, with all except Fitzgerald also representing Canada. While the others struggled in the 10,000 meter, Fitzgerald seemed to thrive, as he enjoys the longer distances, and his cumulative efforts led to a gold medal.

“The conditions were not as friendly as they were for the Empire State Winter Games a few weeks ago, and the field was much more competitive,” Fitzgerald said. “The team from Ontario skated really well all weekend and gave me a real challenge. After winning all three distances skated Saturday it was disappointing not completing the ‘Heiden sweep’ by winning the 1,000 meter distance on Sunday, but I used that to fuel my 10k. I wasn’t going to let that be a disappointing result. I was on a mission to skate under 17 minutes so it felt really great when I did.”

Gabriel Martin earned silver, while Ryan Gibson, still relatively new to speed skating, won third.

“With it being the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Games, it was pretty cool to take a look back at the historic games for speed skating, and in particular Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in all the distances,” Gibson said. “it was my first time doing the 5,000 and 10,000 this weekend, and I gained more respect for the feat that Heiden was able to accomplish back in the 1980 Olympics.

“I’m more of a sprinter so the longer distances were challenging for me but I was happy to come out of it with some good base times to set a starting point for training,” he added

Throughout the weekend, no matter their results, all participants, including the officials, were inspired to be a part of an event commemorating Heiden. Cynthia Patnode Carey, a local speed skater who was a volunteer at the 1980 Olympic Games and currently serves as assistant referee at all Lake Placid races, was happy to be a part of the event.

“The Heiden Challenge was a wonderful success because of the dedicated competitors, coaches, families and volunteers,” Patnode Carey said. “I enjoyed watching the skaters, like Justin Liew racing in his first 5,000 meters, and it was a thrill watching Tommy Fitzgerald race in the 10,000 meters.”

The skaters carried the inspiration of the 1980 Olympics with them in the event, and will use their successes to fuel future achievements.

“Lake Placid is one my favorite tracks to skate on and I take a lot of inspiration from the incredible performance Eric Heiden achieved there 40 years ago,” Fitzgerald added. “It feels very cool getting to replicate that in a way. It’s also amazing to think that four of the five track records he set are still standing today so many years later. I would love to keep chasing those times to see if I can add my name to the history of this legendary track.”

The last speed skating event of the season is the Lake Placid Ice Marathon Finale March 7 and 8. For more information, including registration, visit the Lake Placid Speed Skating Club website at www.lakeplacidspeed.com.