Arctic Winter Games speed skating records shine a light on Fort McKay

A Yellowknife speed skater made Arctic Winter Games history this week.

17-year-old Sage Acorn broke two records set by Olympian Michael Gilday at the Arctic Winter Games nearly 20 years ago.

Acorn won the men’s 500m race Wednesday with a time of 45.02 seconds, half a second faster than Gilday. On Thursday, Acorn broke another of Gilday’s records by cutting a fraction of a second (1:12.15) from Gilday’s 777m time (1:122.22).

Acorn told CBC News he was “very happy to be here and to achieve what I’m doing.”

Acorn, left, competing in the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. He broke two game records this week. (Wood Buffalo 2023 Arctic Winter Games)

The man is in the arena.
Shay Laurent is a hockey coach and ice maker at the Fort McKay arena. (Posted by Shay Laurent)

He even had a great conversation with Gilday after their win.

“He congratulated me on my medals and my record,” Acorn said. “I grew up on the street where Michael grew up. [on]That’s why he was joking about keeping it on the same street.”

Acorn’s coach, Madison Pilling, was also very excited.

“The whole team was very shocked but also very, very proud,” he said.

Then there was the staff and crew at the Fort McKay arena.

‘I am just surprised’

Fort McKay is at the heart of the Fort McKay First Nation, which makes up the majority of the town’s population of approximately 700 people.

The community is perhaps best known for receiving hundreds of people evacuated from Fort McMurray, some 50 kilometers away, during the 2016 wildfire.

And all this week, it’s been turned into the Arctic Winter Games’ speed skating arena.

Shay Laurent is the arena program and facility manager. Normally she coaches hockey, manages reservations and helps run a brand new hockey academy co-hosted with the school.

The man who drives the Zamboni.
A Zamboni driver clears the ice before the next race. (Crystal Mercred)

Two smiling men in a selfie.
Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok with Fort McKay First Nation councilor Raymond Powder. (Posted by Fort McKay First Nation)

This week, he was on the ice, ready to move the “discs” that marked the speed skating oval that he and the rest of the ice making team had carefully placed.

Like many in the community, Laurent said he had never seen speed skating up close before.

“I’m really amazed at how fast they go.”

Laurent says kids from the town’s school were invited to watch the races this week and were similarly impressed.

“You’ve already come to me and said ‘hey, can we try this?’ I had children who said that,” he said.

On Friday, the grandstands were all packed with people from the community who came to watch.

“We feel very happy,” Laurent said. “I grew up playing hockey and always around the rink but never really experienced speed skating and volunteering on the ice was fantastic to see him first hand.

“That’s the talk of the town right now.”

‘Children are fearless’

“We are proud of our facility and its reputation for having the best ice in the area,” says Simon Adams, First Nation’s director of community services.

Arena had undertaken major projects before. It served as a venue for the Alberta Winter Games in 2019. There is an NHL-sized ice surface that is smaller than the Olympic ice that some speed skaters train on.

Adams helped turn the ice into a speed skating oval, with movable fins that can be swapped for different distances, and crash pads on the boards in case anyone misses a turn.

“The kids are fearless… they have adapted to it, and it is surprising that so many records have been broken or personal records have been broken,” Adams said.

“There have been some accidents but so far no one has been injured.”

The group was filmed in winter coats.
Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok stands left as Team Nunavut speed skaters pose for a group shoot at Fort McKay. (Nunavut Speed ​​Skating Association)

Girl biting gold great medal.
Akutaq Williamson Bathory with his golden nation. (Nunavut Speed ​​Skating Association)

Two brothers from Iqaluit won medals in the oval this week. 14-year-old Igimaq Williamson Bathory won a bronze medal, while her 17-year-old sister, Akutaq, won a gold medal.

“These were the very, very exciting first medals for Nunavut at AWG,” their mother, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, told CBC News.

Laakkuluk described the week as “a crazy few days’ roller coaster”.

Igimaq went through a few falls from winning a bronze medal on day one with teammate Meliya Allain. In the same race, Akutaq was disqualified for touching another teammate.

The next day, Igimaq crashed several times.

“By the way, it’s very scary, because they basically slide with knives,” Laakkuluk said.

But the Igimaq was not injured.

“He finished his race and then achieved his personal record in the D division.”

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