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'Like walking on a high wire' - Skate star Hamelin pushes the limits

By Chris Murphy and Brooke Bowman, CNN
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
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Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
Canada's speed king
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Speed skater Charles Hamelin says his sport is like walking on a wire in the air
  • Hamelin is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and has eight World Championship titles
  • When he is racing he says the only voice in the crowd he can hear is that of his girlfriend's
  • Hamelin says it isn't the strongest but the smartest competitor who succeeds

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- Amid all the noise and chaos of a short-track speed skating final, there is one voice in the crowd Charles Hamelin can hear as clear as a bell.

It belongs to his girlfriend and fellow speed skater Marianne St.-Gelais, urging the Canadian on to the finishing line in a competition that is as thrilling as it is dangerous.

Hamelin likens his sport to walking on a wire in mid-air, but despite the precarious nature of his chosen discipline, he can always make out her voice above the din.

"She's the only person I can actually hear when I'm skating," the double Olympic champion told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"She's really loud in the stands but it's like her voice gives me energy. If I know she's there it gives me belief in myself."

They are both targeting next year's Sochi Olympics in Russia, with St.Gelais -- now 23 -- having won two silvers at Vancouver 2010 while Hamelin became a national hero with two golds on the same day.

"We live together and I know what she's doing and she knows what I'm doing, and it's a good thing to have someone to talk to about everything we love the most," Hamelin said.

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That reassuring presence is clearly key for the 29-year-old from Quebec, in a sport where the margins are miniscule.

With competitors haring around the ice at speeds that often near 40 mph, any involuntary nudge or bump can be fatal to their chances of glory.

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But for Hamelin, who has successfully negotiated his way to eight World Championship titles as well as those two Olympic gold medals, that flavor of danger fuels the adrenaline that keeps him coming back to the rink.

"When we go at our fastest speed it's at the limit. You can't hold it but if you do, if you just let it go, you're going to fall," he explained.

"It's like you're walking on a wire in the air, and if you make a little step in the wrong direction, you're going to fall.

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"I think it's a thrill to be on every corner -- every two seconds we have a corner. It's a kind of a thrill doing a fast lap in short track and for us, that's what we love, and that's why we are great at it."

Strength is a prerequisite for any speed skater but Hamelin underlines the importance of being able to marry that power to shrewd in-race tactics.

Rules forbid speed skaters to intentionally bump their fellow competitors out of the way but contact is inevitable in the jostle to take each corner first.

Hamelin's ability to steer the right course and adopt the proper tactics has seen him consistently hit the line ahead of his rivals.

"In short track there's more strategy, there's passing, there's bumping, there's a lot of action in short track, and it's one of the reason why it's a popular sport in the Olympics," he said.

"You're not allowed to push anyone, you're not allowed to actually touch anyone, but for sure in a race you're going to have to pass inside or outside and are going to bump a little bit.

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"It's not the strongest guy on the line who will win, it's the smartest; the guy who will do the best race, who will win the race, and it's a good thing."

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The risk of crashing is high, as is the risk of injury, so skaters learn from a young age how to survive the tumbles.

"When you know how to fall, the injuries are less and less, and you have a better chance to stay healthy," Hamelin said.

"If you get injured during the summer, and you miss two or three weeks of training, then the year will be tough for you and not because you're not a good skater.

"You have three weeks to catch up on everyone, so at our level it's really difficult to do that and we try to avoid any big injury, especially when it's an Olympic season."

Speed skating is a sport that runs in the blood of the Hamelin family.

Charles' brother Francois has also enjoyed success at the top level, as they formed one half of the Canadian relay team that secured gold in the 5,000 meters at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Their father, Yves, is the program director for Canada's short skating stars, and led the team to five medals in Vancouver.

Francois started skating when he was five and Charles was soon hooked too. Their younger brother Mathieu also took up the sport and the family would spend hours on the ice honing their technique.

Charles says it was when he turned 17 and made the World Junior Championships that he dared to dream that his goal of making the Olympics could become a reality.

Read: From the front line to the try line

It's like you're walking on a wire in the air, and if you make a little step in the wrong direction, you're going to fall
Charles Hamelin

It did at the Winter Games in Turin in 2006, and though his silver medal was an impressive return on debut, it only strengthened his resolve to hit the top of the podium four years later in front of a home crowd.

"It was my day," he recalls. "In the 500 meters I got the gold with a crazy race, a crazy finish, and 30 minutes after I came back on the top of the podium with all my teammates to win gold in the relay.

"Two golds in the one day, in 30 minutes, it was the best day of my life."

With a lifetime ambition fulfilled, some may have been forgiven for thinking Hamelin might take his foot off the gas but if anything, his Olympic success has only galvanized his love of competition.

"When you reach the top of Canada or the top of international competition and you touch the podium, you get the feel of it and you just want to repeat it," he said.

"I just want to stay there as long as possible and that's what keeps me wanting it more and more and more.

"Most people ask me why I continued after Vancouver because I won two gold medals, but I say, 'I love my sport and I love to win, so I want to keep doing it and be better at it.' "

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