Swapping skates leads to new Olympic journey for former hockey star

Published April 19, 2022 6:00 a.m. ET

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Former hockey star and member of Speed Skating Canada’s training team, Ryan Gibson tests his speed at an RBC Training Ground event in 2019. Photo credit: Kevin Light Photography.

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From a complete unknown in the speed skating world to a future shining star, Ryan Gibson, 23, is learning the ropes of the sport and aiming for an Olympic debut.

A former hockey player with the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Kingston Voyageurs, Gibson attended an RBC Training Ground event in 2019 where his athletic abilities caught the eye of David Morrison, manager of sport development for Speed Skating Canada. “Ryan’s an example of the gems we’re finding through this program. He would have been completely unknown to us, but these events can jumpstart their careers, giving them the extra support that they need to make it onto the national scene and into the program,” said Morrison.

RBC Training Ground first launched in 2016 and is a nation-wide talent identification and athlete funding program dedicated to finding Canada's future Olympians. It’s free to participate and is open to anyone aged 14 to 25, with in-person qualifying events being held across the country, as well as an at-home testing option. To date, over 1,300 high-potential athletes have been identified through RBC Training Ground, with seven of the program’s alumni medalling at the recent Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.

Gibson is hoping to add his name to that list of medallists in the future. After impressing Morrison back in 2019 with his results at the initial qualifying event, Gibson, along with 30 other athletes with speed skating potential, was invited to skate at the Calgary Olympic Oval. “I had to find my way out to Calgary, put some speed skates on, and that was my first time being out on the oval,” said Gibson. “It was a pretty neat experience and they liked it from the results point of view. Then Dave [Morrison] nominated me for the National Final.”

Morrison says he saw potential in Gibson, especially considering his experience as a hockey player. Seeing him skate the Calgary Olympic Oval sealed the deal. By the time the skaters got to the fifth session, the group had been whittled down. “By that fifth session, it’s a lot for any athlete that hasn’t done the speed skating position before – essentially it’s like holding a squat with a bar on your back for ten minutes. Ryan could do it. We know that if we invest time in this individual, he can hold that position and we can improve his technique,” said Morrison.

From that initial group of 30 athletes in Calgary, Morrison nominated six to the RBC Training Ground National Final, where they would compete against the top 100 athletes to become an RBC “Future Olympian.” Gibson excelled in the finals and was selected by RBC Training Ground, receiving funding and further coaching from Speed Skating Canada.

He was thrilled that his daily training and preparation had paid off. “I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I didn’t want to mess it up. I knew there’d be other kids out there doing the exact same thing and I’d been hoping my training would lead to a good result,” he said.

This winning mentality is the sign of an elite athlete, something Morrison was looking for. “The characteristics I see in Ryan are a strong indication that he can be an elite performer. One of those is his positive attitude. He’s a positive contributor to the training groups he’s in,” Morrison explained. “I also see his perseverance. He learns from his hiccups and he’s not a quitter.”

Now, with his sights set on long track speed skating, Gibson is focused and intent on conquering each new level of competition until he reaches the Olympics. “I’ll be focusing on the long track championships, making the national team, getting on a few world cups and then from there looking at the Olympics,” said Gibson.

He says the funding and connections made through the RBC Training Ground program have helped him navigate the pathway into a new sport. From being connected with an Ottawa-based coach to being able to purchase speed skates and sharpening stones, he says he couldn’t have asked for a better start. For athletes considering the program, Gibson offers this advice: “Go sign up for the closest event to you. Whether you think you have a shot or not, you never know – you might surprise yourself. Give it your all and don’t look back.”

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