RICHMOND, British Columbia - Halfway through the race, Christine Nesbitt figured the gold medal she was supposed to win had slipped away.
Her legs felt sluggish, her technique all wrong.
“This is not going well,’’ she thought to herself.
But Nesbitt turned it all around on the final lap, erasing a deficit of more than a half-second to claim Canada’s first gold at the speedskating oval in the 1,000 meters yesterday.
She hardly sounded like a winner when it was done. Maybe it was dealing with the weight of an entire nation, which counted on her to succeed Cindy Klassen as Canada’s newest star.
Klassen won five medals at the Turin Games four years ago, including gold.
Now Nesbitt has one.
“I’m still reflecting a lot on my race,’’ she said. “I know it wasn’t pretty. I’ve skated a lot better 1,000s this year, so it’s hard for me not to be critical. I am happy, but I’m kind of back and forth. Mixed emotions. I can’t believe I won. I can’t believe it was so close.’’
How close? Two-hundredths of a second over Annette Gerritsen of the Netherlands, matching the tightest finish in the history of the women’s 1,000 - Bonnie Blair’s 1992 victory over China’s Ye Qiaobo.
“I wasn’t very efficient. I was panicking. I was definitely fighting demons. I didn’t feel technically good,’’ said Nesbitt, who had won every 1,000 during the World Cup season but cut this one a little too close for comfort.
No one in the crowd was complaining.
Canada had its first gold at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
Grabbing a Maple Leaf flag for the victory lap and stealing a kiss from her boyfriend, Dutch speedskater Simon Kuipers, Nesbitt was serenaded by the band Kleintje Pils, which played “O Canada’’ and “We Are The Champions’’ while the crowd of more 7,000 rocked and rolled in a boisterous celebration the home fans had been waiting nearly a week to break out.
“I didn’t think the time would hold up,’’ Nesbitt said. “When I took the victory lap, I thought, ‘This is very weird.’ ’’
She was 0.56 seconds off the leading pace with one lap to go, then poured everything she had into those last 400 meters. She was pushing so hard at the end that she lost her balance, sticking out both hands to keep from falling after posting a time of 1 minute, 16.56 seconds.
Nesbitt looked up to see her time on the board, just ahead of Gerritsen, then nervously waited out the final pairing. The last two skaters failed to crack the top three, and the 24-year-old Canadian realized she had won while coasting along the practice lane.
“I thought the worst I would do is win bronze, but I thought, ‘I didn’t come here to win bronze,’ ’’ said Nesbitt, who gave Canada its third gold medal at the Vancouver Games.
Despite settling for silver, Gerritsen was giddy about her time of 1:16.58 - mainly because she made it to the finish, having taken a hard fall in the 500 on Tuesday. The bronze also went to the Dutch, claimed by Laurine van Riessen in 1:16.72.
American Jennifer Rodriguez, who won two medals at the Salt Lake City Games, briefly held the top spot before dropping back to seventh (1:17.08).
Teammate Heather Richardson also cracked the top 10 for the second time at these Games, following up a surprising sixth in the 500 by finishing ninth in 1:17.37. The North Carolina native would have been higher if not for a near fall on the final turn; she dragged her left hand on the ice to regain her balance and lost valuable time.