It was the spring of 2020 when Moose Jaw speed skater Graeme Fish burst onto the international speed skating scene with his world record in the 10,000 metres.
It was also in the spring of 2020 that the now-24-year-old had his first encounter with COVID-19.
Flying back from Europe after competing on the World Cup circuit, Fish later found out that a passenger on his plane had brought the disease with them, and as it was the earliest days of the pandemic, the revelation was startling.
Fish escaped the coronavirus that time.
He wasn’t able to do so this past fall.
And with the way things shook out during World Cup #2 in Stavanger, Norway at the end of November, it marked the closest of calls an athlete could have with the disease and still come out on top.
In the end, it all worked out perfectly, as the former Kinsmen Moose Jaw Speed Skating Club competitor was officially named to the Canadian Olympic team early last week and was set to depart for Beijing this past Wednesday as part of the first wave of arrivals for the Games.
So here’s what went down, as explained by Graeme himself in an interview with MooseJawToday.com.
The Close Call
“On the Thursday (prior to the World Cup), I started having symptoms, a bit of a cough and a runny nose but it wasn’t a big thing so I just kept going. ” Fish explained. “I had a PCR test and tested negative, and with rapid tests every morning I kept testing negative, too. I actually raced three days into having symptoms of COVID and ended up finishing fourth, so it was a pretty decent race, even though I felt pretty low on energy.”
Fish ended up with a time of 13:07.739 in the 10,000-metres, finishing behind current world record holder Nils van der Pool of Sweden (12:38.928), Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands (12:56.088) and Canadian teammate Ted-Jan Bloeman (13:00.230).
Not the medals as hoped, but close enough to be a threat.
Especially with what came down not 24 hours later.
“Then the next day I tested positive on a rapid test and then on the PCR,” Fish said, “and I’m actually really, really lucky.”
See, Fish had made a hard and specific point of doing what he could to avoid COVID-19. That included removing himself from the Team Canada competitive pool for the 2020 season, a decision that saw him miss 20 months of competition.
The 2021 World Cup campaign was a chance to get back in action, with the 10,000 metres in Stavanger his first attempt at the distance after over a year of exclusively training at the Calgary Oval.
It would also mark his only race of the season -- meaning that had the COVID-19 tests came up positive prior to his race in Norway, Fish wouldn’t have been allowed to compete and very likely would have been left off the Olympic team.
“So there was a lot of luck involved with that one,” Fish said. “I wouldn’t have qualified in Canada’s second spot if I hadn’t raced, so it was pretty incredible with how it all worked out.”
Recovery and Preparation
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just kind of happened,” he added. “My roommate who was on the World Cup circuit with me caught it, then all my house caught it and it sped through all of us. I was lucky no one else on the team got it other than me when I was in Norway.”
As it stands, Fish ended up spending two weeks in Norway under quarantine and more weeks on top of that away from the ice as a safety protocol, which left him not only missing World Cup meets in Salt Lake City and Calgary but also tons of valuable training.
“So I kind of de-trained a little bit, but now fitness-wise I’m pretty much back to where I was just before I had COVID,” Fish said. “So it’s now it’s just race and see how it goes.”
Fish was back on the ice for a training race the weekend prior to leaving for Beijing and while it wasn’t his fastest performance, it was good enough to give him confidence heading into the Games.
“It was my first race in over two months, so for me it was a bit slow, but I was just excited to race again and get that feel again,” Fish said. “We just got off a block of pretty hard training, so everyone didn’t race as fast as they could. It wasn’t terrible, but there are still lots of things I want to work on going into Beijing.
“Right now, though, it was good to get that race feel again and even though it kind of hurt, it was fun to be back out there and feel that way.”
While the Games announcement was made on Jan. 17, team members have known who was going to be selected since the beginning of the month, a necessary step for proper preparation.
“Obviously I was pretty excited when I found out,” Fish said. “Since we didn’t have trials, there was some question there, but it’s great that it all worked out. Other than that I’ve been just waiting and focussing and preparing. It hasn’t really quite hit me yet, but it probably will once I get on the plane and see everyone there.”
To say the least, it’s been an interesting run since February 2020 in Salt Lake City.
“It was never ‘oh, I’m going to the Olympics now, for sure’ even with what I did two years ago, but now my name is finally on the list and it’s exciting for sure,” Fish said.
One thing that hasn’t changed in any way are Fish’s goals for the Games.
Much like spring of 2020, when he instantly became a Canadian medal favourite after his world record skate, the podium is the ultimate aim. Now, it’s a matter of putting it all together once again, this time on the biggest of stages.
“Obviously being on the podium is the main goal, and I think it’s in reach,” Fish said. “Then it’s just have fun, if you’re not having fun what’s the point of even doing it? It’ll be a bit different with COVID and everything and there won’t be any crowds, but mentally it’ll be the same as most meets.”
Of course, one aspect of the Games is being a part of the whole scene, something Fish is certainly looking forward to -- within the strict regulations, of course.
“There’s a 48-hour rule, once you’re done your last event you have to leave 48 hours later. Lucky enough, I’m the sub in the Mass Start, so I’ll be there the whole time,” he explained.
“I think we’re allowed to go to the different events, I know there are no Chinese spectators allowed, but I think all the athletes are allowed to watch other sports. I probably won’t until I’m done racing, but I think that’s an option for everyone there and it’ll be fun to check some of the other stuff out.”
As every athlete who reaches the Olympic level is quick to point out, it takes a lot of support to reach that level.
From his days growing up doing laps of the Wakamow Oval and tearing around the Kinsmen Arena short track, to all the success at various levels of competition throughout his career, the whole journey is about to pay off in the most incredible way.
“There are a lot of people who helped me get here, it takes a village as our mental performance guy tells us,” Fish said. “Verna Kergan coached me since I was in Grade 5, from when I was 10-years-old until I left and came out here. She was obviously a big part of it… it’s kind of weird thinking about it all back then, you never think this is really going to happen and now it’s ‘wow’. It’s kind of surreal for sure.”
The support of the Moose Jaw community has also been a big part of his run to Beijing, and it was this past summer that a special commemorative banner was hung in the Kinsmen Arena, honouring Fish’s world-record-setting skate.
And, of course, there’s family. They’ve been there every step of the way, with mom Marie even knitting special touques that have drawn plenty of attention when they attend World Cup meets.
“It’s hard to put into words how important they’ve been to me, and hey, if someone wants a good ole Fish Touque, they can get hold of my mom,” Fish said with a laugh.
You can reach out to Marie at email@example.com to place an order, $40 each with $10 going back to the Kinsmen Moose Jaw Speed Skating Club.
Fish will skate the 10,000 metres on Friday, Feb, 11 and if necessary will take the ice in the mass start on Saturday, Feb. 19.
For full results and updates from the Beijing Games, be sure to visit www.olympics.com.