If you didn’t read No Regrets Part 1, I’d strongly suggest that you do or what follows won’t make any sense at all.
2004: Ice Camp
By the summer of 2004, my fitness was improving but I was still without a race circuit to attend. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was biding my time in Austin, not really doing much with my life, books were selling, I was dating a very crazy girl. And in poking around the Internet, I came across a used pair of ice speed skating boots (that turned out to be six sizes too big) on Ebay. What the hell, I thought, let’s pick them up. You know, just in case.
Part of me must have been thinking about the ice because, somehow, I then managed to stumble across an Introduction to Long-track camp being held at the Salt Lake City Olympic Oval. I signed up immediately. If nothing else, I wanted to be able to say that I had at least tried the ice once.
I flew in that Thursday night, got a room at the extended stay hotel and showed up for camp first thing the next morning. It was awful and I mean that very seriously. I figured it would be a bunch of older folks like me; instead it was me and a bunch of 8-10 year olds who had all been skating for 5 years and who’s parents apparently saw this as great daycare.
I felt like an idiot and I looked like an idiot. I was this older guy with gray in his beard playing warm-up tag and soccer with the 8 year olds (all while the national team was training on the big oval watching me be an idiot on the track). But I was there to try the ice and that’s all I cared about; I’d do the goofy stuff to get to the real stuff.
The camp was meant to be a full introduction to ice speedskating and what that entails. We did some dryland training, a bunch of off-ice skating imitations that skaters do to get in shape in the summer when they aren’t skating. We went into the weight room where I just kept my mouth shut and hoped the ‘coach’ wouldn’t hurt the 10 year olds by making them do very heavy leg presses. There was also a sharpening clinic that I skipped; I went and had lunch with Bryan Haycock instead. I mean, why learn to sharpen skates? I wouldn’t ever be doing it, right?
At some point on Day 1, they put us on the ice and it was an absolute nightmare. I was skating on short-track skates which are completely inappropriate for the big oval. And I was clueless about what to do. The little kids, all of whom had been doing this for years were zooming around me as I tried not to die. I sort of hacked around for a while, the coaches were not great. In fact, one of them, in response to a technical question I had simply blew me off “Oh, don’t worry about that.” What an asshole.
I woke up the next day almost unable to walk but I was there to do camp so off I went, soreness be damned. I had gone to an extra open-ice session and attended every session on the ice that I could. I wanted to know that, no matter what happened going forwards, I had gotten on the ice and done everything at camp that I could. I had made the trip and, dammit, I was going to do it all.
Early Sunday, camp ended and I went back to Austin. On the way out of the Oval I picked up a copy of Derek Parra’s autobiography “Reflections in the Ice” which I’ll talk about in a second. I devoured it in its entirety on the plane.
Arriving back in Austin, I sat and thought. And thought. And thought. The reality was that I had been there for years not doing much beyond selling books, playing on the Internet and spending too much time at strip clubs. As noted, the girl I was dating was completely nuts. It wasn’t a terribly fulfilling life. There was still the issue that the only inline races available were marathons (40-50km) and I didn’t want to race those. Without 10k’s to race, it looked like my return to skating was going to come to a rather abrupt end.
Summing up so far: I was 34 years old, Torino was 1.5 years away, I had a brand spanking new pair of ice speedskating boots and no inline circuit to race.
Can you see where this is going?
Now, I have many things in my life that I can look back on with regret. Girls I should have talked to, girls I should have slept with, things I should have done very differently at various times in my life. I also have a personality type that tends to ruminate on the past a little bit too much. Unfortunately, constantly stressing over what you should have done or could have done is useless; focus on what you can do now. You can’t change the past, you can only learn from it and not make the same mistakes going forwards. Well not more than a half-dozen times anyhow.
And the more I thought about it the more I realized that I would look back on my life with great regret if I didn’t chase this one dream. That is, going to Salt Lake and trying to speedskate, make an Olympic team. Something. I knew full well that the odds of me doing anything were slim. But let’s face it, folks who start when they are 5 have no guarantee of success. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I had enough prior regrets without making this one another one.
So I made my decision: I was going.
Inline to Ice: Part 1
There is actually a small tradition of inline skaters making a successful switch to ice. KC Boutiette is, so far as I can tell, the first to do this. He switched from pro-inline to ice and made an Olympic team his first time out although the rapidity with which he got good on the ice is a bit exaggerated.
I mentioned Derek Parra above, after being a world-class inline skater, he switched to ice. Although it took him 8 years to do it, he won a gold medal and set a 1500m world record at the Salt Lake City, Olympics. But reading his book on the plane ride home is a big part of what gave me the belief that it was at least worth making the attempt. He had started relatively late and won his gold medal at 32 years old which at least gave me some hope that an old fart like me could do it.
Chad Hedrick is the most recent example; arguably the best inline skater ever, he switched to ice and won a World Championship 1.5 years later. What is often under appreciated is that he had skated indoor inline and played ice hockey his whole life in addition to dominating inline skating. This gave him a complete skill set to adapt to ice speedskating quickly. His teammates call him “The Exception” and his ability to go from zero to World Champion in 1.5 years is an example of that.
In recent years, indoor inliners have made the switch, they have the corner skills that lets them succeed on the ice. In fact, US Speedskating, for lack of their own development program, has started trying to recruit more inline skaters; probably in hopes of finding the next Chad. Unfortunately, he was a one in a milion athlete. Most inliners who have tried to make the switch give up after 2 years of frustration. It’s tough going from best in the world to just another skater in a new sport and most have quit.
In any case, between not doing anything in Austin and inliners showing that they had the ability to make the transition my decision was made to go for it. I think my biggest hangup was that I was still training my girls for powerlifting, this was the one thing that I truly got some type of meaningful enjoyment out of at that point. I didn’t feel good leaving them. I dithered in telling them but when I did, as I should have expected, they supported me 100%. They understood completely what I needed to do.
Are You Crazy or Just Stupid?
I made an announcement on a message board and, shall we say, reactions were mixed. One of the common reactions was “Are you out of your mind?” Well, yeah, probably. But that wasn’t really news. People often ask me if I suffer from insanity and I tell them “No, I enjoy every minute of it.”
Another common reaction was “Do you really think you have a chance of making an Olympic team?” I had trouble explaining my mentality about it but, essentially I went with the intention of succeeding, but I accepted the reality that I would probably fail. I didn’t expect to fail but I fully recognized that as the most likely possibility; does that make sense? But as I noted above, I could have started when I was 5 years old and the odds of making a team were slim. How many thousands of athletes in any sport dedicate their lives and don’t make a team? My chances were even slimmer given when I was starting. But they would be absolutely zero if I didn’t try at all.
Perhaps the most overwhelmingly common reaction was from people expressing how they wished they could do what I had to do: just pack up their lives and go chase a dream (albeit a crazy one). Either they had family or work obligations or were simply too scared to take the chance. The fear of failure was too much for them to even try at all. For whatever reason, I sensed an element of jealousy that I was doing this and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t).
The final reaction I got had less to do with skating and more to do with Salt Lake City. “You’re moving to Utah?” “Seriously?” “Why?” I won’t go into the whole SLC thing, it’s not worth the energy. I’ll only note that the specifics of long-track speedskating make facilities difficult (it’s essentially a full-sized running track made out of ice, it covers 7 acres) and there are three US facilities.
The first is in Lake Placid which is outdoors. No thank you. The second is the Petit center in Milwaukee (or Wisconsin depending on who you ask). Miserably cold and I hate cold weather. The final one is the Utah Olympic Oval. SLC is cold but dry and at least tolerable. It was the best of the worst in terms of where I could pursue this.
But succeed or fail, my attitude was this: I knew that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t try. Sure, I might fail utterly. I could live with that. What I couldn’t live with was the life of regret wondering “What if I had tried?” Of not knowing what might have been. I knew that years down the road I would have yet another regret to add to the list if I didn’t do this. I couldn’t face that, it scared me far more than failing to reach a nearly impossible goal. I had nothing holding me in Austin except the girls I was training, everything to gain and nothing to lose. So I was going.
Wrapping Up the Austin Caper
I had been in Austin about 7 years at this point, having moved down shortly before finishing my first book. I’m not one that handles change well but, at this point, the fear over change was less than my desire to go chase a dream. I had a bunch of stuff to wrap up before leaving Austin and threw myself into my training in preparation. I’ve written about this in a little ranty piece called Training Secrets.
I had foregone weight training for inline but realized after my time on the ice that it required a great deal more strength. I got back in the weight room, worked through the soreness and threw myself into the most intense training I had ever done. At one point I was training legs 6 days/week, 4 weight days and 2 jumping days. That was on top of maintenance aerobic work, technical work and some GPP (walking in a weighted vest every night). I trained 3X/day most days. I might not have a clue what I was doing on the ice but I wasn’t going to lack for fitness.
A month later, I had gotten rid of everything but the essentials: my computer, my books and my skates (I should probably add my PS2 and a tv to play games/watch movies on). I left Austin for Salt Lake City, with a quick stopover to visit a friend in the Fort Worth Area. I knew literally nothing about Salt Lake City beyond where I’d stayed for camp. Two days later, I pulled in and went to the same Extended Stay Hotel. I was in Salt Lake City. To speedskate.
To be continued in No Regrets Part 3.