Wheels keep breeding icy success

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 06:  Joey Mantia competes in the Men's 1500 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on January 6, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 06: Joey Mantia competes in the Men's 1500 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on January 6, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Published February 3 2018
Updated February 3 2018

Once, U.S. Olympic speed skaters hailed almost exclusively from the Midwest, from places such as West Allis and Madison, Wis., and Champaign, Ill., where they grew up skating on frozen ponds or on the wind-whipped outdoor oval at Milwaukee’s State Fair Park.

Check out the 2018 Olympic long-track team.

Three members who will compete beginning Friday in Pyeonchang, South Korea, are from Ocala. Two are from North Carolina, one is from Houston and another is from Crestview in the Florida Panhandle.

The Southern flavor is due to an influx of inline skaters who have crossed over to the ice. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Inline skater KC Boutiette showed what was possible when he made the 1994 Olympic team after only a few months on the ice.

Later, Chad Hedrick, Derek Parra and Joey Cheek made the transition, and all won Olympic gold medals.

"Our skaters have been able to realize their Olympic dream on the ice," said USA Roller Sports vice president Renee Hildebrand. "We don’t go to the Olympics in our sport."

Hildebrand coached Brittany Bowe, Joey Mantia and Erin Jackson on inlines in Ocala. Bowe and Mantia have made their second Olympic team, and Jackson wowed longtime observers at the Olympic trials in Milwaukee last month by making her first team after just five months of training on ice.

Mia Manganello of Crestview took a break from speed skating after the 2010 Olympic trials and switched to cycling. She returned to speed skating in 2016.

Bowe is a two-time world sprint champion in speed skating, and Mantia, who won 28 world championship titles and 15 World Cup gold medals on inlines, is considered a medal favorite in the mass start at the Pyeongchang Games.

"Joey and Brittany reached all their goals on inlines," Hildrebrand said. "They had nothing left to achieve. They were successful in speed skating because they were already world champions (on inlines).

"There’s a certain level of perseverance, dedication and mental toughness that you develop as a world champion. When they switched to the ice, they had a lot of those elements within them."

Six of the 13 members of the Olympic long-track team have inline backgrounds. Club participation in speed skating is declining, and the days of skaters training and racing outdoors are long gone.

Initially, the speed skating establishment wasn’t accepting of inline skaters. Purists turned up their noses at the inliners’ reckless style and unorthodox technique.

Boutiette, something of a maverick, remembers stopping abruptly on his skates like a hockey player, spraying up a cloud of ice and getting disapproving looks that seemed to say, "That’s not how we do it on clap skates."

"At first, the speed-skating coaches were very anti-inline," Hildebrand said. "I said, ‘There’s a reason why we’re switching over and beating people who have been on the ice.’?"

Inline skaters have won 11 of 18 individual Olympic long-track medals for the United States since 2002.

Inline skaters come to the ice with great lower-body strength and conditioning. Hedrick, who won five Olympic medals, was able to skate harder and longer than most of his competitors on ice.

"We get stronger because we’re able to spend more time on wheels than you could on ice," Hildebrand said. "We might be on our (inlines) six hours in a day. On the ice, you can’t do that. It just trashes your legs."

U.S. Speedskating now embraces the inline community and has tried to mine it for future Olympians. But participation numbers are declining in roller sports, too, leaving doubt as to where speed-skating champions will come from at the 2022 Olympics and beyond.

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