From Fort St. James to Pyeongchang

Moving to Quebec was an agonizing decision for short track speed skater Jamie Macdonald.

When she looks back on it now, 2 1/2 years later, she knows she made the right choice.

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The change of surroundings gave her the chance to train every day with the fastest skaters in the world - her teammates on Canada's Olympic team.

Today in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 23-year-old will compete in the women's 500m qualification round, the first short-track race of the Olympics, and Macdonald will have all of northern B.C., cheering her on.

Born in Kitimat and raised in Fort St. James, Macdonald admits competing in the Olympics might not have been possible had she not decided to pull the plug and move from Calgary, where she lived with her older sister Caitlynn and was close with her friends at university, just a day's drive away from her parents. Once she arrived at the national training centre in Montreal and started training full-time with the likes of Marianne St-Gelais and Valerie Maltais - both Olympic and world championship medalists - there was nothing holding Macdonald back.

"It was a tough transition coming to Montreal and leaving all that behind and learning how to adapt to a new training environment and all the new people, but it was worth it," said Macdonald.

"I always like to have little goals for myself and it's kind of amazing to look at Marianne, knowing I want to get to that point. I've been working every day to get up there and I've got the speed now and I'm ready for it."

Most of B.C. will still be still asleep when Macdonald lines up for her first 500 m heat early today. The qualification round started at 2 a.m. PT, with finals to follow on Tuesday. The event has 32 skaters, four in each heat.

Macdonald knew at age 15 she had a shot at a national team future at the 2011 Canada Winter Games in Halifax where she posted two top-10 finishes racing against skaters as much as four years older. That summer she moved to Calgary to train at the Olympic Oval. Three years later she made it to the national development team.

"I'd always had that dream of going to the Olympics, ever since I was young, and when I was 16 and moved to Calgary I realized how much work you have to put in," Macdonald said.

"It took me six years to get up to where I am now.

"Leading up to the trials in August I knew I was one of the top girls and I knew I could challenge the top girls like Marianne and Val, I knew I was at the same level as them and keep up to them and I knew I was ready to be on the Olympic team."

Macdonald's first individual World Cup medal came two years ago when she won bronze in the 1,500m. Earlier that season, in her first World Cup event, she helped Canada to silver in the relay.

Last season Macdonald struck silver and bronze in the 500m and had three relay medals. In four World Cup stops this season she's won silver and bronze in the relays and posted sixth-place finishes in the 500m, 1,000m, and 1,500m events. She ranked second overall in the Olympic short track team selections.

Macdonald's first introduction to an organized skating sport came when she joined a hockey team at age four while her family was living in Stewart, northwest of Terrace. She was six when they moved to Fort St. James and with a population of only about 1,600 there was no girls hockey team. So her parents, Russ and Julie, both former rugby players at the University of Victoria, got Jamie and her older sister Caitlynn involved with the Fort St. James Falcons Speed Skating Club.

"I always kind of knew short track was what I wanted to do, it had all the elements that I love, like the speed and the tactics," she said. "You're in such tight quarters with all the other skaters and I love the competition of going out there and wanting to beat everybody on this line.

"I had a lot of friends who skated with me at a young age and it was a lot of fun going out there. We were serious about skating and training but we also played games to make it fun. Once I got older, people stopped skating and it was just me and my dad at some point and I knew then I had to move on to Calgary to train with people who were at my speed."

Keith Gordon coached Macdonald with the Fort St. James Falcons from the time she was eight until she left for Calgary. Gordon taught her how to formulate a race plan in her head and gave her the tools to help channel her energy and relentless drive to succeed.

"Keith is a pretty intense guy and I'm a pretty intense athlete and it worked well and I improved a lot with him," she said. "He gave me my start in the sport. I wouldn't be here without him."

Gordon took over from Falcons coach Randy Sulyma, who taught the younger skaters in the club. Gordon noticed right away that Macdonald stood out among her peers.

"I'd like to say I taught her how to skate but I didn't," said Gordon. "When she came here as a six-year-old she could already skate because she played on the kids hockey team in Stewart. Into her teens she started to train really hard in dryland. Speed skaters are made in the summer and she was really good at that."

Macdonald's participation in the Ellis Edge summer speed camps in Prince George put on by former U.S. Olympic team coach Susan Ellis was a gamechanger. Ellis's training tips offered new insight into the technical aspects of skating and for Macdonald it made a world of difference in the power her strides could generate.

"She really got me thinking about analyzing my body position while I'm skating because short track is a very technical sport as well as strength and everything and it comes down to the very minor details," Macdonald said.

"If your hip is a centimetre out of place you can be thrown off in the corner and you won't hold your position or you might drift wide coming out of the corner just because your positioning is out of place."

The first-ever Olympian from Fort St. James is scheduled to race with Canada's 3,000m relay team on Feb. 20, combining with four Quebec skaters - St-Gelais, Maltais, Kasandra Bradette and Kim Boutin. Boutin won eight of the nine team selection races.

"We don't even know which relays we're going to be skating, the coach (Frederick Blackburn) will make that decision right before we're to go race and we're prepared for that," said Macdonald.

"All of us are looking to medal at this Olympics. I mean, it's short track and sometimes something unpredictable happens and you just have to roll with it, but our goal is to go out there and show what we've got."

Based on results from the past four World Cup events, Canada has three athletes in all distances except the men's 500m. Boutin and St-Gelais are also entered in the women's 500m with Macdonald, Only the top two from each heat will advance.

"She could easily draw a couple of skaters who are really fast and be done her first race," said Gordon. "It's still a major achievement if she gets to the line and has a good race, even if she gets third or fourth, I think she will have done fantastically.

"That said, with a little luck and getting a decent draw she could go a long ways and then if you can win a couple of races your confidence goes up as well. It's hard to predict."

Macdonald has her family there watching. Russ Macdonald made the trip from his home in Slave Lake, Alta., and Jamie's mom Julie traveled from Vanderhoof. Both are in Pyeongchang for the next two weeks. Caitlynn will join them for the second week of the Games to watch the relays.

"I think it's going to be pretty incredible, just to share that moment with them when I'm on the ice representing the country on the world stage in such a huge event," said Macdonald. "I'm so happy they be there to share that with me.

"It's going to be incredible just being there with all of the other athletes and the camaraderie of meeting new people, we're all going to share this Olympic experience and I'm going to come back with so many memories of people I've met who have worked just as hard to get to that point."

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