Continuing from No Regrets Part 2, where I had wrapped up in Austin and gone to Salt Lake City.
It would actually be about a week before I got a pair of blades for my boots so I couldn’t get on the ice immediately. My first task was to find a gym, I did this before finding a place to live. I found a fantastic one down the road about a mile and joined immediately. Sadly it would get bought out by Gold’s Gym a year or two later and ruined before being closed. But I could continue my weight room assault and cardio until I got my blades.
They finally arrived and I started going to club ice sessions. Now, the oval has a ‘coaching’ program in place, it’s run with about the same level of competency and organization as everything else they do there; which is to say, with less skill than the average little league soccer team.
The head “coach” was the guy who had blown me off at camp. After watching me do drills one night he told me “I don’t believe in drills, just go skate.” That’s when I knew he was an idiot. I later watched him overtrain every skater in the club into dust and they all got slower that season working with him.
So Very Alone
But the long and the short of it is that I was going about this alone. And oh was I alone. I had been involved in road cycling in college and, let’s just say that there is an elitist prick gene that is common to that sport. They shun anyone without the right equipment, the right socks, etc.; then you’re a Fred and they won’t even talk to you.
Well ice speed skating, by and large, has that same elitist prick gene to about the 10th power. To be fair, two groups of skaters turned out to be friendly on average: the inliners and, how can I put this gently, the brown-skinned people.
Now, by and large, speed skating is one of those sports ruled by the lily white folks from Minnesota. But there are an increasing number of other ethnic groups starting to skate: Derek Parra was actually the first Hispanic American to win a winter gold medal and Shani Davis is the first African American. And brown-skinned folks are starting to enter the sport in small amounts. Those two groups, the inliners and the brown-skinned folks were friendly.
In dire contrast, the majority of the white folks from Wisconsin who made up the sport well….unless you were as fast as them, you weren’t worth even saying hello to or talking to unless they were yelling at you to get out of the way.
They would happily stand in the middle of the track while people were trying to train and felt that they owned both the oval and the ice although neither were true. If they wanted to ignore ice etiquette, that was fine. If you got in their way, you wouldn’t hear the end of it. That kind of thing. That was if you were slower than them.
And if you were faster than them (never an issue for me), they hated you for it because it meant they actually had to do some work to keep their spots rather than just getting by on the lack of competition and having friends who were higher up to vote them onto the team. Just a bunch of miserable pricks (please note: this wasn’t ALL of them, just the grand majority).
This made the oval a very unfriendly place to be. Everybody was more concerned with being competitive than anything else. Now, I’m all for competition, it’s kill or be killed during a race. But afterwards, chill the hell out. My soon to be teammate Caleb mentioned repeatedly that it wasn’t like that in skiing, everyone competed like hell during races. And then had a beer when it was all over. You can do both.
Training at the Olympic Oval
That the Utah Olympic Oval is the the official Olympic training center didn’t help mind you. There is just that ‘We are elite athletes’ mentality where you’re better than the rest of the world. Except that you don’t work, get supported by your parents and chase this little obscure hobby which entails skating in a circle for hours at a time. And yet fail to realize that “skating fast in a circle” is not really important to the functioning of the world at large. Or a job description.
Outside of our group, nobody seemed to be having much fun there. I can’t work that way and was a constant comedian during practice and workouts. Make no mistake, when it was time to train, the joking stopped and I was as serious as a heart attack. But there’s a lot of sitting around in-between sets and laps in skating. Have some fun people. I had fun.
Skating with the Club
In any case, this attitude had apparently trickled down to the club level as well: in the first few weeks of attending club sessions, I don’t think a single person said so much as “Hi”. Now, I can be difficult to approach, I look perpetually pissed off. And I’m well aware of this. But if some random new guys suddenly showed up and started skating (at a session where there are maybe 15 people there) in this little niche sport, you figure that at least someone would ask what he was doing there or something. Nope.
But I didn’t care, I was here to train, not make buddies. I’d go up there three times per week, do the drills I thought I should do, try to skate laps, then do conditioning afterwards. I actually talked to Derek Parra (he was preparing for Torino) early on, he saw me doing dryland with my weight vest and came over to talk to me.
Like a good fanboy, I told him that reading his book is what made me pursue this and he was nice enough to take my blades and straighten and sharpen them for me. I know some people have real issues with him but he was never anything but nice to me (he was an inliner AND had brown-skin so he got double points). Later on, he’d give me one of my top compliments, telling me he was impressed by how I attacked my corners. He had struggled endlessly at this sport and saw me working my balls off to get better. That was nice.
But that was my first month in Salt Lake. No coach, no friends, no nothing. Even the strip clubs were just horrible (I had to go to one). I was in a fairly miserable city where I couldn’t even get a decent plate of fajitas (I missed Tex-Mex).
At some point, one club skater finally introduced himself. His name was Caleb. He had moved to SLC from Vail to chase the dream and was equally lonely and unhappy and sat down to say hello to the other weird outcast at club skate.
As it would turn out, we’d end up as teammates for nearly the next 5 years and form the core of my coach’s group. I can’t say we were exactly friends, he’s not the kind of person I’d probably hang out with outside of training. But we got along, he had a big heart and he was a hard worker (usually). Over dinner one night he mentioned off handedly that there was this guy, a coach named Rex that I should talk to. And that he’d be coaching at club the following session. So I looked for him.
And found him, an older guy wearing a blue jacket, he was working with an athlete trying to make Olympic trials. I introduced myself and he gave me a couple of pointers on the ice that immediately helped. After skating, I was doing dryland and he gave me some more tips that also worked. I asked him if he had plans for dinner that night. He did not.
Rex and I went to the Panda Express in my ‘hood for dinner where I proceeded, for about 2 hours, to interview/interrogate him. Due to my own experiences with coaching, I have some rather strongly held opinions about certain things and had to make sure we were on the same wavelength before I took him on as coach. We were.
The long and the short of it is that he’d made the Olympic trials in 1980 but was too overtrained to make the team. So he became a coach; I have always felt that he was trying to make up for his own previous failings by getting others to surpass how far he got. Like so many a lot of good coaches usually found out what not to do the hard way by trying to coach themselves.
For the last 30 or so years he’d coached and obsessively taken apart every aspect of speed skating in the way I take apart every other bit of training and nutrition. He’d gotten many skaters like myself to Olympic trials and put at least one on the team.
He always seemed to get older skaters who had a limited time to reach their goals and his entire program was based around that singular goal; he had pared it down to the essentials. It was all specificity all the time since his athletes usually didn’t have time to dick around with warm-up soccer or the agility ladder. I could get behind that completely.
So he had the results to back it up and his and my philosophy of training (technique first, quality over quantity) were right inline (har har). We clicked instantly both in terms of our attitudes and obsessiveness as well as our sense of humor and personality. I hired him on the spot. I told him my goals, he told me what I’d have to do and it was on.
I joked that night that “Just so you know, if I succeed, it’s because I worked so hard. But if I fail, it’s because you coached me wrong.” I was joking (genuinely despite something I’ll mention in a later part) but told him that I figured most athletes operate that way, I just wanted to let him know up front. That was when he knew he’d found a kindred (read: smart-assed) spirit in me.
Make no mistake, over the years Rex and I would have our ups and downs. We became good friends but there were various blips during the 5.5 years I worked with him. At one point in year 2 or 3 I actually walked away from training for about 3 weeks due to a personality conflict with another of his skaters that was not getting dealt with.
She perpetually tried to start conflict with me as I just tried to ignore her and I warned him that if she started with me again, I’d walk. She mouthed off one day and I walked. He fired her (sort-of) and I came back to practice. I simply trained on my own and I’d note that I didn’t miss a single workout.
We also had some disagreements about training, mostly the conditioning aspect since I didn’t know enough about skating to have an opinion about technique. But he was the type who would discuss things with me, he knew and respected my background and was as willing to learn from me as he was to teach. Over the years, many aspects of my training would be adjusted based on my own input (as I figured out the unique demands of skating). I’d note that my teammates also got to take advantage of the Super Secret Project that I was developing.
If I had to sum up Rex briefly as a coach, I’d put it this way: when it comes to the technique of skating and how to teach it, I’m not sure there’s anyone better in the world. He’s dissected every millimeter of the sport and can teach it effectively. His conditioning and nutrition stuff is a bit out of date (this is where he was really willing to learn from me) and he fails completely in handling people or his skaters well.
The latter wasn’t an issue for me personally (I was always there to work at my best) although it did affect me when his flaky other skaters would interrupt my training with their bullshit (being late to practice, missing weeks and then bitching about being out of shape, etc.). But he knew skating technique and that’s what I was mostly interested in. I needed to learn to skate and he was truly a technical master. I’d be lying if I didn’t also point out that, realistically, he was the only one willing to work with a late-starting 34 year-old wannabe. It was just a happy coincidence that he was as good a technical coach as he was.
Now, one month into the journey it was truly on. I had skates, I had a coach, I had years of background skating inline.
How hard could this possibly be?
To be continued in No Regrets Part 4.