Abigail McCluskey

Penticton-born skater Abigail McCluskey, a veteran of Kelowna Speed Skating Club, smiles after a race in Salt Lake City, Utah, earlier this season.

Abigail McCluskey admits her pre-race ritual isn’t the most pleasant.

But the 23-year-old Penticton speed-skater can’t argue with the results after a breakthrough season has her dreaming of the Olympics.

“I’d say it was a bit of a breakthrough year for me,” she said during an interview Friday, “definitely a huge growing year as well.”

McCluskey dominated a Canada Cup race earlier this season in Fort St. John, posted some of her best times at a World Cup qualifier in Calgary and made her World Cup debut in Salt Lake City.

“It’s huge for my confidence level, and also I struggle with nerves quite a bit,” she said. “It’s been a big year, just getting over my nerves. Confidence has helped me a lot with that.”

The nerves are nothing new for the former Kelowna Speed Skating Club member. McCluskey said it’s been a lifelong challenge to keep them in check.

“I’ve always struggled with it. Forever. ... I have a tendency to puke before races from being so nervous,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve accepted it at this point. I’ve gotten used to it, but I’m still working at trying to fix it a little bit.”

Well, the Beijing Winter Olympics are less than two years away, so she has some time to get ahead of it.

Maybe it won’t even matter. Racing on the world stage may be old hat for McCluskey by then based on what’s happened this season.

She took up speed-skating soon after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. McCluskey said she wanted a new challenge away from hockey and ringette — her first sports — but wanted to stay on the ice.

She persuaded her parents to make the hour drive weekly from Penticton to train with KSSC and coach Nancy Goplen.

She was “instantly hooked.”

“Nancy was huge for me from right when I started skating,” McCluskey said.

Speed-skating gave her the rush she craved — “speed mixed with the endurance.”

“It is a very hard, physical sport which I do really enjoy, but I also enjoy the community,” she said. “The speed-skating community is so small and tight-knit. You always have a group of friends. We’re very close. That helps a lot.”

She now lives in Calgary in a house with four other skaters. She also works part-time to help make ends meet.

Their season ended before the COVID-19 outbreak, but they’ve not been able to train as they’d like since then.

McCluskey said they’ve started eying up the garage as their new gym and will continue inline skating.

Being ready for next season is imperative for McCluskey.

She said 2019’s schedule did not start the way she had wanted after missing out on Canada’s World Cup squad, but she hopes to carry the momentum she gained from her late-season races into the fall.

She won three gold medals — the 1,500 metres, team sprint and mass start — at a Canada Cup race in Fort St. John, breaking two track records in the process.

She can also claim two gold (team sprint, 1,500) and two bronze (3,000, mass start) from the under-23 World Cup in the Netherlands.

But her true breakthrough — even though it didn’t come with any hardware — came from a World Cup qualifying race in Calgary in early January.

“It was a two-second PB for me,” McCluskey said. “I raced against the fastest girl in Canada (Ivanie Blondin). I was able to keep with her a bit more than I normally would have or really anyone thought I should’ve been able to. It was just a very good race where everything came together for the first time this season for me.”

That led her to qualify for the world single distances championship in Utah, where she finished 19th thanks to another personal-best time.

She capped it all off “the absolute best way it could have” with a trip to the World Sprint Championships in Norway in late February.

She still has ground to gain on the world’s best, but it isn’t stopping her from preparing for what might be on the horizon.

“I am hoping to be in Beijing in 2022,” she said. “I like to dream. I like to believe I can be there. My results from this year show I’m going in the right direction.”

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Email: dave.trifunov@ok.bc.ca

This story appeared on page B1 of The Okanagan Weekend's March 28 print edition.