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Commitment to community propels speed skater to competitive result

Sandy MacDonell competed in the Elfstedentocht, a 100 km race in Austria

A local speed skater recently competed in a winter competition in Europe.

Long-time Smithers resident, Crown prosecutor and skater Sandy MacDonell competed in the 100 km speed skating race at the 2024 Alternatieve Elfstedentocht (Alternative Eleven Cities Tour) in Austria on Jan. 30. MacDonell completed the race in five hours and 47 minutes, placing him in the top 40 per cent of all male skaters in the 100 km event.

The Elfstedentocht is a skating competition held every year in the winter on a high-altitude lake in Weissensee, in Carinthia, Austria, and serves as an alternative to the Eleven Cities Tour which cannot be held every year in the Netherlands due to the Dutch climate.

The traditional race is 200 km and passes through the canals of Friesland, a province in the Netherlands. Speed skating events are held over two weeks and include four combined 100 and 200 km races, as well as a 200 km Open Championship.

According to MacDonell, it was a family member who first introduced him to the Austrian event.

“The Elfstedentocht, Eleven Cities Tour, was brought to my attention by my late Dutch father-in-Law, Henk, who used to skate for hours on the ovals on our lake in Smithers,” he said.

Once he became aware of the event, MacDonell dreamt of being a part of it, but the timing was just never right.

“Many years ago, I began dreaming of skating the Alternatieve Elfstedentocht, but was scuppered by such things as a judge scheduling a murder trial over the dates of it, COVID, and, last year, a kidney stone,” he explained.

This year, MacDonell finally got his chance. He says a lot of preparation was required, not all of which went perfectly, but undaunted, he travelled to Lake Weissensee with his “support team” — his wife, Karin Blouw. His speed skates and headlamp were both purchased locally in Smithers.

MacDonell registered for the 100 km race alongside 241 other skaters, many of whom were from the Netherlands. MacDonell was one of just six Canadians in the field. Approximately another 750 skaters participated in the 200 km race, and they started an hour earlier at 7 a.m.

Top racers averaged over 35 km per hour, for 200 Kilometres, while avoiding large cracks in the lake ice.

“I learned that skating in front is fun, but skating in the back, riding the draught, is smarter,” MacDonell recalled. “One way or the other, I made it to the end — in reasonable time.”

At 66-years of age, MacDonell is hopeful for a return to the Elfstedentocht next year — this time, in the 200 km race. Skaters have 12 hours to complete it, starting an hour before sunrise.

“We will see if I am up to it, at my age,” he said. “I received some encouragement from the Dutch fellow who finished just behind me in the 100 kilometre race, meaning he skated faster than 60 per cent of the male skaters in that race — he is 79.”

Sue Harrison has known MacDonell for over 20 years, ever since he moved to Seymour Lake, and says that Smithers offers a unique skating experience, one that wouldn’t be possible without MacDonell’s help and commitment to the community.

“For those of us who live on the lake, the early deep-freeze allows us to skate the whole lake if we’re lucky,” Harrison said. “We all discovered blades which attach to cross country ski boots and make the skating a glorious experience. Sandy has been a huge fan of the blades and has always skated whenever possible.”

Harrison also notes that when the snow piled up on the lake, MacDonell was the one who plowed paths around the lake, which allowed skaters to enjoy a good and long skating experience.

“He would plow first thing in the morning, during the day and last thing at night,” she said. “He’s done this for years.”

Harrison says that MacDonell has spent hours skating his paths around the lake as he trained for the Elfstedentocht, and points out his distinct skating style: hands at his back, torso slightly bent forward and a long glide with each push off the ice.

“Sandy is very dedicated,” Harrison said. “There are many of us who appreciate his long hours on the lake.”

MacDonell’s neighbour, Robbie McKnight, has lived on Seymour lake for 43 years, and shares similar memories of MacDonell’s dedication to skating and the community.

“Last February, Sandy helped organize a speed skating clinic on the lake,” he recalled. “I am seeing a lot more speed skaters this year, along with hockey players, mom skaters pushing baby buggies, young couples, dog skaters (walkers). It is great.”

McKnight also says MacDonell has been committed to his training, as he was practicing several times a day no matter what the weather, but his commitment to the community has been even greater.

“Best of all, he, along with Harvey Tremblay and Donnie Oulton, have spent hours creating and maintaining skating tracks that our whole community has access to,” McKnight said. “They are true champions.”