Skating silver for Canadian birthday girl

Canada's Marianne St-Gelais reacts after winning the silver medal in the women's 500m short track skating competition at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

VANCOUVER - Fresh-faced Marianne St-Gelais and Jessica Gregg were supposed to be the rookies of the Canadian women's short-track team, learning the Olympic ropes in the shadow of Kalyna Roberge, their more experienced teammate.

But over the course of the last few months there were hopeful whispers around the team that maybe, just maybe, they too would be contenders for the podium in the 500 metres.

Both women have powerful starts, the critical element in a race that's over in fewer than five laps. In the end, it was the two young wildcards who stole the show.

St-Gelais, of St-Felicien, Que., won the silver on her 20th birthday, hoisting the flag around the rink with the brilliant smile that at times seems permanently plastered to her face. Only last year, she was the world junior champion in the 500.

Gregg, a native of Edmonton and the daughter of former Edmonton Oilers journeyman Randy Gregg, came in fourth, with Roberge tearfully forced to accept a sixth-place finish. Roberge came into the race ranked second in the world in the distance.

"I'm still the rookie, but I've made a name for myself," said St-Gelais, who could barely speak to reporters as she went from tears to giggles. She carried a water bottle under one arm, and champagne under the other.

"Before the race I had three objectives. Top eight was reasonable, top four was ambitious and top three was a dream. But in a race you never know, so I pushed myself to the limit and I went as far as possible."

China's Wang Meng, the most dominant woman in short track, surprised no one by cruising to a gold medal and setting a new Olympic record.

St-Gelais' silver medal was immediately celebrated by the team as a group victory. Apart from Gregg, all members skate together at Montreal's Maurice Richard Arena and are exceptionally close.

In the corridors of the rink, where journalists congregate after races to interview athletes, her teammates were lying in wait to sing her "Bonne Fete!"

Boyfriend Charles Hamelin, the star of the men's team, gave her a long, lingering hug.

"I just felt the greatest emotion of my life," said Hamelin, who skated that night in a 1,000-metre heat. "I don't think I could have felt better if it was me winning the medal."

Hamelin said he kissed St-Gelais in the morning Wednesday and wished her a medal for her birthday.

"I think the only thing that can match this is a ring," he said with a huge grin. "It's not bought yet, but it's maybe coming."

Her parents, Gaetan St-Gelais and Francine Prive, had been deliriously hugging and kissing each other in the stands throughout the evening.

"Already being here is a gift. It's a dream," Prive said of the whole experience.

Through it all, Roberge was supposed to be Canada's best hope for a medal in the 500 metres. She looked crestfallen even as she began the B final race. She broke down as she spoke to reporters about what had happened.

Roberge, of St-Etienne-de-Lauzon, Que., blamed her showing on poor starts, which she said continues to be her main weakness.

"I'm telling myself that maybe it was not my place to win a medal, but to help my team win one," said Roberge, who came fourth in the 500 metres at the 2006 Turin Games.

The fact Gregg managed to qualify for the final was a delight for the team, but she too seemed disappointed by the end result. Her start was not as strong as in previous races and she was overtaken by Italian Arianna Fontana for the bronze.

"I had a bit of a hesitation around the first corner and it sucks that it was the A final, and I fought back hard, but in the end I wasn't able to catch those girls," said 21-year-old Gregg, whose brother Jamie is competing in long-track speedskating at the Games.

Wednesday's medal came as a relief to the entire team, who came away disappointed from last Saturday's men's 1,500 metres. Hamelin was supposed to be a sure thing for the podium, but saw himself cut out of the running in a tough semifinal.

In the men's 1,000-metre elimination heats Wednesday, both Hamelin and his brother Francois advanced to the quarter-finals. Hamelin briefly held the Olympic record Wednesday, but it was beaten a few heats later by South Korea's Sung Si-Bak.

Nicolas Bean of Ottawa also advanced for the Italian team. He passed Travis Jayner of Riverview, N.B., who is skating for the United States, in the final strides of the heat.

Canada also advanced to the final in the 5,000-metre men's relay.