Having looked at the sport in general, US dominance (more or less) and a host of other stuff yesterday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 21, let’s look at the sport in this country to see why we have produced so consistently. This is actually where the true mindfreak is going to come in because the entire setup of the sport would seem to be all wrong. And yet we somehow product. I also want to look at how the US appears to slipping and their current desperation move to try to fix it as this will also be illustrative for when I turn my eye to OL’ing on Monday.
So after you read this, on with the show.
US Speedskating (USS): Part 1
Unlike the other US sports I’ve discussed so far where there are usually pretty large numbers of folks involved, long-track speed skating is a stunningly niche sport. At any given time there are about 2000 members of USS and that includes juniors and masters; that I can tell it’s been like this for decades (my coach has been in the sport for 30 years and it’s been like that as long as he’s been involved). I also believe this includes both long- and short-track skaters but I wouldn’t swear to it. I honestly don’t know that much about the short-track end of the sport and won’t mention it much further.
I already mentioned how hard it is to pursue the sport, if you didn’t live in one of about 2 places back in the day or one of about 3 now, you can’t do metric long-track. Finding competent coaching is nearly impossible, the sport is technically absurd and few seem to understand it much less know how to teach it. My coach was a technical master, but he spent 30+ years dissecting every millimeter of the sport. Even at the top levels, coaches either don’t know or don’t care to correct technique. Some teach outright wrong things. Some skaters make it work anyhow.
It’s not cheap to do either although it’s not cycling level stupid in terms of the money you can drop. Equipment isn’t too bad (a good pair of skates, blades and a skinsuit will run you about $1000 although the super nifty Swiftskins can be 800-1000$ themselves) but ice time and coaching adds up quickly.
That’s on top of having to relocate to pursue the sport in the first place if you don’t happen to live in the handful of places where there is an oval to be had. Given the background of many of the skaters, that same middle and upper class white upbringing, there is a bit of a country club flavor to ice speedskating (figure skating has a similar vibe since it’s stupid expensive to pursue). It’s also exceedingly elitist which does nothing to bring new people into the sport.
It’s the only sport I’ve found where the handful of folks in it are even more elitist pricks than in cycling. It’s such a small sport with a handful of people trying to carve something out that nobody likes anybody else and I have never seen, in the aggregate, so much outright antagonism towards new skaters as I saw during my time there (the only friendly people were, to put it bluntly, the inliners and brown people). Because if you’re slower than the elites you’re just not worth talking to. And if you’re faster than they are, then they just hate you because now they have to work.
In any case, the reality is that many of the athletes come from money or at least supported by mommy and daddy to skate around an ice oval for years. An example: back in the days before the Utah Oval or Petit, US skaters used to go to Canada to train in Calgary; but they couldn’t legally work there. When I asked how they survived, I was told that they “Drew on the bank of mommy and daddy.” So there is at least some support for some athletes but it’s all from their parents. The ones who don’t come from rich families get nothing and struggle like other athletes. Derek Parra actually scrimped and struggled to pursue his goal, working crazy jobs, doing crazy commutes all to pursue the sport. He’s not alone.
But no support of any kind is given to the athletes especially developing athletes. And that’s due to the federation. Often called the Minnesota Mafia, there was a bunch of politicking that went on in the early days where USS (which handled elite competition) absorbed the old Amateur Skating Union (ASU, which handled development and grassroots) and then proceeded to screw everything up. Because they decided that only the elite mattered and put all of what little focus they had there.
USS is run with the mentality of a small minded, small town yet elitist country club in oh so many ways (the stuff I personally saw during my years in SLC could fill a book but doesn’t belong here). They actively tell people not to bother even trying the sport unless they are young (anybody over 20 is told not to waste their time) and they treat the athletes like crap in all kinds of brilliant ways (we had ice time canceled without announcements all the time because it’s apparently impossible to send out an email to save us the trip up).
Employment decisions are made based on friendships and nepotism or because someone has a kid who’s a skater. Bored elites are given ‘coaching’ jobs with no experience and no background and often can’t be bothered to show up to coach; they simply have better things to do. All of this when there are people with coaching backgrounds who want to do the jobs.
My favorite example, one that is actually ILLEGAL. A coaching position came up at the Utah Olympic Oval (a public facility mind you, USS just has offices there) and my coach put in an application. Having heard nothing, he went to check on its status with the guy who was making the hiring decisions. He was told that he had been turned down for the job. Because the guy who was making the hiring decision had decided to give HIMSELF the job instead. That’s right, the guy in charge of the hiring decision hired himself. It’s just that kind of stuff every day.
Members of the federation (who often have kids in the sport) will pick and choose who gets put on the team, often breaking or rewriting rules on the fly to protect their own kid (or in at least one case, a skater that they were having sex with) and put them on the team even if someone else was technically better.
At the last Olympics, USS opted not to take one of their alternates for the 1500m because they disliked her personally. In Torino, the skater they did take woke up and just decided “I don’t want to skate today”. And she didn’t and they let her get away with it. The spoiled little princess couldn’t be bothered to go race that day so the US had nobody at the starting line. Despite having an alternate who would have loved to have gotten her Olympic experience after a lifetime of training.
There is literally no grass roots development with the federation choosing to focus on the ‘elites’ (not apparently realizing that when the elites get too old, you need skaters coming up to replace them). That’s just the beginning of the stupidity and here’s another great example:
I mentioned Shani Davis yesterday, he actually started in short-track, must have gotten bored going to World Championships and winning and then switched to long-track skating where he continued to kick ass. And he did it fighting the USS federation every step of the way.
At one point for example, he was qualified to skate US Championships in both short- and long-track skating. The federation, who didn’t think that it was fair for one athlete to dominate both sports (because god forbid you send your best to World Cup events), deliberately put both events on the same weekend simply so that he couldn’t skate them both. He was the only one impacted and they scheduled things specifically to keep him from making both teams. That’s USS.
That’s just the tip of the iceburg but I won’t spend more time on that here; in short, they institute policies that do more harm than good, there’s all kind of awesome nepotism within the federation, corruption and all the rest that happens in situations like this that I could write and write and write about. Instead I’d point you to my friend Eva Rodansky’s book Winter of Discontent; she lived it at the highest level of the sport. She was also the alternate I mentioned.
But that’s the situation with speed skating in this country: tiny sport, few athletes, no access, limited/incompetent coaching, zero support, and a federation that seems intent on acting against the success of it own athletes. Shout out to the US Olympic lifters reading this: does this sound at all familiar?
And yet we succeed. In fact, we more than succeed, we’re at least as good as two winter sports countries who are just freaking skating crazy (I do not mean this lightly; during World Cup events, thousands of crazy Dutch and Norwegian fans will fly to the US to watch their skaters compete).
How we do it is the question. Let’s see if we can figure out an answer.
USS: Part 2
Because the entire situation in the sport in this country should be set up to fail utterly, it seems to break every rule I’ve written so far about sports dominance and what’s required. And we win, we win consistently, and we have won consistently for nearly 100 years.
Tangentially, one consequence of this, mind you, is that the federation doesn’t seem to realize that what it’s doing is wrong. All they see is our guys on the medal stand and conclude “Our system works.” Even if the athletes will tell a completely different story. Again read Eva’s book for more details on that.
The truly weird part of this is that nobody seems to know why this is the case, how US speedskaters have continually won medals (I believe we’ve won at least one medal in nearly every Winter Olympics with maybe one exception) in the face of the situation as a whole. My coach watched this for over 3 decades and he didn’t have a damn clue. I can’t say I know for sure either but I’ll be happy to speculate (and yes this will all be relevant to the OL’ing example, stick with me).
About the only thing US speedskating had going for it was a tradition. It started in the early 20th century but probably really took off when Eric Heiden swept all 5 Olympic events in the 1980 Winter Olympic games in Lake Placid (his achievement being totally overshadowed by the US hockey teams defeat of the Russians). Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen followed and more would follow after them.
And perhaps most relevantly, due to the nature of the sport and the requirements to set up an oval (you need flat, a big lake and seriously freezing temperatures), the entirety of US Speedskating was located right there in the Minnesota/Wisconsin areas, two flat, perpetually frozen, states with lots of lakes. A full oval is 7 acres of ice so you need a BIG lake.
Not a lot of hills for skiing so everyone growing up skated. At least some kids grew up idolizing speed skaters. There was also skating occurring elsewhere in that area, my own coach is from upstate New York (it was hard for me to trust a Yankee as a coach) and Placid was put there for a reason. But everything was really centralized in that one area of the country. And when the land you live in is frozen a lot of the time, you find ways to amuse yourself. If you have hills and snow, you ski. If you have flat and ice, you skate. So everybody there skated. Kids without the drive or temperament for hockey or figure skating would have probably gone into speed skating.
And they start young which is HUGE key to later success: there is this aspect of skating called ice feel that I mentioned above; the sooner you learn to move on ice the better. It’s a lot like swimming in that regards where water feel is key. Most great ice speed skaters were on the ice very early and figured out ice feel when their brains were still plastic (mine was tapioca when I started on the ice at 34). Even Derek Parra, a world class inline skater took nearly 8 years to really figure out the ice. It’s that kind of sport.
Since everyone involved in the sport was more or less local, there was at least some guidance and coaching available from folks who sort of knew what was going on. Quite in fact, many ex-skaters kids went into the sport and the parents did the coaching (for example, Nancy Swider-Pelz’s daughter is a top female skater; also acted unfairly against by the federation because they don’t like her mom who is outspoken and won’t put up with their bullshit).
As is the case in all areas like this, there tend to be lots of kids competitions, send the kiddies out and race them a few hundred meters for a ribbon to keep them occupied on a Sunday. And who doesn’t like a ribbon? That gave kids a fun way to try the sport as well as helping to identify talent that would then be given more support and coaching (not unlike the youth running competitions in Kenya or most other countries, or kiddie bike races held in bike crazy Europe).
Its worth mentioning here that just as the European countries tended to dominate the distances for certain cultural reasons, US speedskaters were typically stronger in the sprints (500-1500m). And this is a function of the style of racing done on the East Coast which is called pack-style skating. Unlike the metric long-track I described which is the International sport and raced in pairs, pack-style is raced like a more ‘standard’ race. A big group of folks on the track at once and the first guy across wins. There’s pacing, jockeying for position and usually the events come down to the final sprint. A sport Americans can get but which isn’t contested internationally.
The funniest thing about pack style is that if the pack as a whole is going too SLOW, the ref. can stop the race, call them back to the line and start it over again, effectively telling them to “Go actually race, you lazy sons of bitches.” More or less. There are more crashes and, of course, it’s a style of racing that appeals more to Americans: first guy across wins and it looks like actual racing to us.
In any case, with most races being run pack style (and kiddie races being run over short distances because longer stuff hurts too much), the kids who won early were the ones with natural sprinting ability and speed over short distances. They pursued the sport and would develop into top sprinters internationally. And although Heiden, who was just a freak of nature, swept every distance, it’s only been recently that the US has done much in the distances for reasons I’ll explain in a second.
Another possible reason that the US seems to generate success may be the simply bizarro nature of the sport. As I stated, the technical demands of the sport are insane, as are the physiological demands that I outlined yesterday. And the whole ice feel thing. If I get bored, I’ll write something detailed on it, you can get a feel for it by reading the No Regrets series.
It might be that, kind of like swimming, when a real talent emerges they just dominate because of those weird technical/other demands. That still wouldn’t explain why the US seems to find those athletes in the first place; the numbers don’t seem to have been there. So we’re still no closer to an explanation (and again, this will all be relevant to the OL’ing issue).
What Was Going On?
For most of its history, US speedskating was literally limited to this one little enclave of the country where the culture, tradition and environment was conducive to the sport. And the population of Minnesota/Wisconsin and the surrounding nothingness might have been sufficient that enough people went into the sport (and had access to facilities, inasmuch as a frozen lack is a facility) and coaching that talent was identified.
My best guess as to what was going on, especially given the next section is this: by the time you added up the populations of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the surrounding tundras, threw in the local tradition, threw in coaching and early competition, threw in the fact that the parents of skaters often had the money to support their kids, added in few other options because of the weather, you ended up with this little microcosm that was similar enough to the other situations I’ve described. It was just totally localized to this one area of the country.
And that microcosm was sufficient to identify and train potential talent in this simply bizarro world sport consistently enough to generate success at the world level. Which is what the US has done for most of the time the sport was contested. I’ll be 100% honest that I can’t say for sure this is what happened, it’s simply my best guess and the only thing that makes an ounce of sense given the situation. Especially given my next point which seems to indirectly support it.
The Future of US Speedskating
Of late, the US has been slipping in speedskating. So in contrast to previous years where we had a number of succesful skaters at every games (male and female), in 2010 for example, only two long-track men really did much and the women did absolutely nothing. And the men who won were Chad Hedrick (who came from inline) and Shani Davis (who came from short-track). And that’s sort of interesting, the two best US long-track ice Speedskaters didn’t actually develop in long-track. Which says quite a bit about the utterly non-existent long-track development program and what’s going on with the sport.
The official Olympic training ground for the sport is now Utah (previously long-track was based at Petit and short-track at Colorado springs) and the tradition and interest in Minnesota/Wisconsin seems to have waned because of that. By and large, folks in Utah aren’t big into sports, many don’t even know the oval exists (I kid you not, the Oval management can’t even get the word out that the world’s best ice facility is up the road) and there aren’t the numbers entering the sport that there were. At least not starting on the ice.
USS decision to focus solely on the elites shows a shortsightedness of epic scale. Because elites never stay elite forever. They get old and retire and if you don’t have developing skaters coming up, you end up screwed. In fact, the one Winter Olympic in which we failed to medal occurred when this happened: Jansen and Blair had retired and we had nobody coming up. And all of a sudden USS got real interested in development. Then we started winning again and they went right back to being the same shortsighted dipshits that always ran the federation. Forget history and you repeat it.
But the tiny microcosm of skating that generated top level skaters for over three decades is now gone. And that’s showing up in our lack of ability to produce at the highest levels. Between that and incompetent handling by the federation, effectively, the sport is dying in the US and this is occurring just as the rest of the world is improving and showing interest.
Countries that haven’t traditionally been strong are getting into the sport now which makes winning that much tougher: I’d note Enrico Fabrisi’s come from nowhere 1500m gold medal win that nobody was expecting. And he’s not alone. The US, for it’s total lack of foresight, is at best staying static while the rest of the world moves forwards. At worst we’re moving backwards. This is an important point, please read it again.
And Just What is USS Doing About This?
Quite in fact, the lack of up and coming skaters on the ice (make no mistake, there are some but they are consistently hamstrung by the federation; one I knew was expected to pay his own way to overseas championships, for example. He would only get reimbursed if he placed well) has forced the federation to get a bit desperate. Instead of focusing on athletes who grew up on the ice, they have gone looking for talent in a related sport: inline speed skating.
And that decision can be traced to one name: Chad Hedrick who I mentioned earlier. While not the first inliner to make the switch and succeed on the ice he was the most prominent. He’s an outspoken Texas boy (like the one I talked about Tuesday) who had a reputation for being so good that he could race (and win) hung-over. There must be something in the water down Texas way.
Chad went from the most dominant inline skater ever to world champion ice speedskater in 1.5 years. His technique on the ice was ugly as hell but he went fast so it didn’t matter; in his first few years on the ice he was more or less untouchable. He also had a complex background including ice hockey (which gave him ice feel), indoor inline skating (which gave him corners) and outdoor inline skating (which gave him a motor); and he started skating when he was like 2 because his parents owned a skating rink.
He is not a good example for many reasons and even his teammates called him ‘The Exception’. He didn’t ride a bike, he didn’t lift weights, he didn’t do anything that all speed skaters since the dawn of time have done to train explaining “Why would I ride a bike or lift weights when I can go out and skate hard?” He skated from the time he was two, invented a new technique of skating, and never did anything else except skate. All specificity all the time.
But because of Chad’s success (and, again, he isn’t the only inliner to do well, just the most well known and successful) and in the absence of many developing ice speedskaters (there are a few), USS has tried to co-opt inline skaters in hopes of finding the next Chad, someone who can go from inline to ice in a short period, hopefully in time for 2014.
And please note, the sport is not called Rollerblading but rather inline skating. Inline skating is the sport, Rollerblades are a brand in the same way that Xerox is a brand and photocopy machines are what it is. Or Kleenex is a brand and tissue paper is the product category.
Anyway, with their WhIP/Ice to Inline program, USS put their focus on a sport that is actually monstrous in the United States: roller skating. To the consternation of the ice athletes, USS has given some financial support to rollerskaters that was never given to the ice skaters who had spent their life pursuing the sport. That went over stunningly.
But wait. What? Roller skating? That crap your parents did under the disco ball?
Roller Skating is HUGE in this Country
Yes, roller skating under the guidance of USA Roller Sports which oversees figure skating, skate jam (think roller disco), roller hockey and both indoor and outdoor inline racing. Recently they got roller derby recognized internationally. And while USARS skaters originally rode quad skates for racing, when it became clear that inlines were faster in the late 80’s, everybody switched.
Indoor inline racing is insanely well developed in this country, most of those left over roller rinks from the 80’s have speed teams and an enormous number of kids go into it. My local rink, for example has a good 40-50 skaters on the indoor speed team ranging from little kids to oldsters like me (I know there’s another team up the road in Waco so at least 100 skaters in a 100 mile radius; that’s 1/20th of the entire membership of US Speedskating).
Now multiply that by the number of rinks in the country and you get a massive sport with huge numbers of skaters; it’s one of those things that a certain type of kid (who doesn’t like team sports) in a certain type of town gets into. And there’s lots of those kinds of towns in the US. In the UK, kids like that would ride a bike; here they rollerskate.
And while the training system seems to be ‘run ’em hard and see who survives and then send the winners to Nationals there are simply the numbers and enough coaching to generate success by grinding them up and seeing who survives. Several indoor roller skaters have made the switch to short-track skating on the ice; they have the corners and the pack skills and just have to figure out the ice. Some do, some don’t. But you only need one, right?
Outdoors, inline speed skating is relatively dead in the US per se (there are about 10 total races and most of those are marathons or half-marathons) but, believe it or not, inline speed skating is competed internationally at the highest level (the World Championships this year are being held in Korea). It’s never gotten Olympic recognition but is raced at the PanAm games with a lot of countries having teams. Yes, I am still talking about roller skating. At the Pan American games.
Races are run both on a banked track (a smaller version of a cycling velodrome) and outdoors at distance ranging from 300m sprints to 50km; both individual time trials and pack and points races are competed. Chad actually competed indoors and outdoors but he was most known for his dominance in marathon. And frankly, when you race 50km all the time, 10km on the ice isn’t so big of a deal (mind you 10k on the ice is about a billion times harder than 10k outdoors).
Which is why the infusion of inliners to the sport have shifted some of our success to the distances on the ice; they have the endurance base that, frankly, many US skaters lack (I was once looked upon with shock when I said I had been out inlining for 3 hours; this was a foreign concept in a sport where a long ‘set’ is 10 minutes).
But US Speedskating has targeted inline as the next potential talent pool for the ice. There isn’t really much incentive for the athletes mind you, the only real one is the chance to compete at the Olympics which isn’t an option as an inliner. So for athletes such as Harry Vogel, Justin Stelly or Joey Mantia (sorry but I don’t know any of the top females although I know they exist) who are already at the top of the sport in inline, the next logical step is the ice and the Olympics.
They have nowhere else to go which is the reason both Derek and Chad first considered the ice. They were at the top of their sport and the only way to go further was to switch to an Olympic sport. You can expect to see Mantia (a many times world champion and inline record holder) in 2014 on the ice. Basically it’s not an issue of finding folks and trying to motivate them; the motivated athletes are already there (presumably they have the same internal drive of swimmers in that there are no incentives beyond wanting to be the best) and they know how to skate. They just have to adapt to the ice.
Basically, USA Rollersports is a situation completely unlike that of US Speedskating, but that is similar to the others: a massive numbers of athletes channeled into competition and competent enough coaching who apparently have enough internal drive to pursue the sport without any real source of potential rewards that I can see.
I think it’s no surprise that many speed teams exist where there is simply nothing else to do; Waco isn’t known for its night life. Or for kids who just aren’t drawn to the normal team sports or whatever, it’s a sport that you can do indoors, has a tradition, it’s accessible, etc. Everything that doesn’t exist on the ice. Well, doesn’t anymore now that the Wisconsin/Minnesota thing is gone.
Back to Ice Speedskating
But now I’ve gotten off track; my main point was that US Speedskating, despite seeming to do ‘everything wrong’ consistently produces top athletes and wins medals; at least it has for most of the time the sport has been contested. And it’s accomplished this with 2000 total athletes, no development program, limited facilities, an elitist attitude that keeps more out of the sport than it recruits and everything else that should hold it back it manages to succeed. Though if my hypothesis about the Wisconsin/Minneosta microcosm is correct, it might have been enough at the time.
And in that things are changing, that interest in the ice is waning, that the US isn’t performing as well, with USS looking to inline out of desparation to find the next Chad, the above may have been entirely correct. The situation that existed in the sport for most of our history in the sport is long gone. And with it goes success. And in the same way the example of US cycling shows how a sport can ‘turn itself’ around in a short period of time, the example of US speedskating shows how a sport can effectively kill itself in a similar fashion.
And is only relevant for a reason that I’ll give you now but explain in far more detail shortly: superficially US Speedskating looks pretty much just like US Olympic lifting. Tiny sport, few athletes, inaccessible, no coaching, stupid federation, etc. But with one major difference: speedskating wins medals and OL’ing does not. And it was worth trying to figure out why that is the case. There are more similarities that you’ll see, believe it or not, starting on Monday. This time for real.
- The Bearing Story: Part 1
- Winter of Discontent – Book Review
- No Regrets – My Life in Speed Skating
- No Regrets Part 4
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 21