Renee Hildebrand is a name known in speed skating circles, both inline and ice, and it’s a name held in the highest regard. As the founder and lead coach of inline speed team Team Florida, her team and the skaters she’s produced are truly at home nowhere else like they are when they’re on the top of the podium. It’s as if it’s a custom home built just for them, that the rest of us just get to visit once in a while. In all the years I’ve been skating and attending both Outdoor and Indoor Nationals, I’ve never failed to see Team Florida podium, from Tiny Tots on up through every division, both genders, straight on through to the Pros.
To a person, she’s an unassuming woman who you could be standing behind in line at the bank on a Saturday morning, and have no idea at all that she’s been credited as being the main influence in the lives of countless speed skaters the world over, not the least of which being 2014 Winter US Olympians Joey Mantia and Brittany Bowe. The intensity of her practices and training camps have earned her the nickname “Nasty Nay”, and she’s known for getting results. Skaters just keep coming back for more. In fact, it’s clear to me she’s more than a coach to the skaters she’s trained, and that’s apparent in the dozens of comments and IM’s I’ve gotten about her since announcing this interview. Skaters and their families, other coaches and friends of hers, all singing praise of her, and all rooted in genuine respect, adoration and love.
Over the years, I’ve made a couple of attempts to goad some free coaching advice from her, and those efforts have finally paid off. Here now is a conversation with one of the winningest coaches the sport has ever seen. Sit up and take notes friends, because the road to Olympus starts here, with her guiding our way.
FirstLoser: You’ve been coaching for thirty years! What is it about inline speed skating that drives such passion in you? What is it that keeps you engaged after all this time?
Renee Hildebrand: I have to say that it’s the skaters that keep me engaged, seeing the progress in their skating skills and seeing their confidence soar. I don’t know exactly what drives the passion, but I think my passion serves the kids’ passion because they know I’m as much into them becoming better skaters as they are. I’m excited to be at practice, and that motivates them to work for me. Skaters have told me I just make them want to skate hard. Watching a wobbly-legged little kid develop as a skater and then climb onto a podium to receive his first trophy is priceless.
FirstLoser: At this point, if you had to guess, how many skaters would you say you’ve had a hand in training?
Coach Hildebrand: Wow! I have no idea how I could figure that out. Laughs It has to be a few thousand that have come through our practices over the years. As in all sports there’s a high attrition rate, you may get one out of ten kids that stick around long enough to develop into a competitive skater. What’s great is, since I’ve started coaching in Ocala again, I am getting skaters I coached bringing their kids to me!
FirstLoser: What’s been the greatest reward for you after all these years?
Coach Hildebrand: I think all the “firsts” are very rewarding, such as seeing the kids win their first national title or first world championship medal. It makes me feel successful and proud when my skaters reach that level. Winning is a habit, and once I get them to that level, they expect to win! If you don’t expect to win, it’ll never happen. Then there are the friendships I’ve made with the skaters, parents and other coaches in the sport, as the next most rewarding aspect.
FirstLoser: How about a career highlight? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge…
Coach Hildebrand: Certainly, Brittany and Joey making the Olympics would be the most rewarding thing that’s happened in my coaching career! Not just that they made it, but how quickly they transitioned to the ice and just what great representatives they are for our country. I’m proud of the people they have become and feel I’ve had a part in “raising” them.
FirstLoser: Clearly you’ve got a winning formula that’s proven itself over time. Countless national and world champions have risen from your tutelage. What is it about your approach that’s led to your skaters being so dominant?
Coach Hildebrand: My approach is to make sure the skaters have fun! It sounds simple, but kids aren’t going to stick to anything that isn’t fun. If you can’t keep the kids coming to practice for a year or two, it’s hard to make them any good. If you train them properly and they get faster, it continues to be fun. Eventually, for the kids, working hard and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones even becomes fun for them. During the time Brittany and Joey were growing up on Team Florida we had a great group of talented skaters that fed off each other.
FirstLoser: Sure, when skaters are improving they’re having fun, and when you have such world-class talent to chase around the track, that can be very motivating. I imagine there’s an energy level that you don’t find at just “any ol’” practice.
Coach Hildebrand: The practice atmosphere has to be intense and highly competitive, even when doing technique drills. I’ve learned that kids will try to live up to your expectations, so I expect my skaters to give 100% effort at practice, and I expect them to get better. And they do! I also expect them to become champions, and I convince them they can based on the success of other skaters who have come through my program. The other important aspect of my approach is using the more advanced skaters to assist with the newer ones. Not only does it teach the new ones, but it makes the advanced skaters even better because they have to demonstrate correct technique over and over again.
FirstLoser: Ah, that’s certainly shown itself in Mantia, at least it’s something I’ve observed with him. Easy to talk to, very open to sharing technical advice, demonstrating technique, and a strict discipline and focus on precision. But in terms of where you train, you’ve coached in Florida for the majority of your career. Does the weather and do outside track conditions play into your formula for success on the world stage?
Coach Hildebrand: Primarily, the weather in Florida gives us year-round access to outdoor skating. The heat and humidity make for (one of) the most difficult training atmospheres you can get, so it does prepare the skaters to skate in those conditions. However, all inline skaters have to compete in Colorado Springs every year to qualify for our world team. So there, it’s difficult for my skaters to handle the altitude and cold, dry climate, but they have been able to adapt. When the competitions are at sea level and hot and humid, my skaters do very well, however, so do the Colombians! Laughs
FirstLoser: How about your background as a sports physiologist? What role does that play in all of this?
Coach Hildebrand: The primary reason I decided on getting a degree in Physical Therapy was to become a better coach. I wanted to coach speed skating, but having never been a world or even a national champion, I felt the knowledge of exercise physiology and degree in PT would give me validity as a coach.
FirstLoser: Ah! That was my million-dollar question! How can you produce such talent without ever having been there yourself? You beat me to it! So clearly that worked out for you! Laughs
Coach Hildebrand: Yes, I‘ve certainly used my education to enhance my training program. I also provide the athletes with injury prevention and treatment when necessary. I’ve used my knowledge of kinesiology to make our off-skates exercises more sport specific, and I use that to perfect my skater’s technique.
FirstLoser: Well, anyone can walk into a rink or show up at a practice, but what is it you look for when you’re looking for talent, or someone you can invest in and work with long term?
Coach Hildebrand: I look for the kids that are speeding around the rink trying to see how fast they can go. You can just spot them! Some are on decent skates and some kids are on cheap rollerblades, but you can see they want to go fast! But the biggest factor in a skater staying in the sport long term is parental support. I’ve seen hundreds of kids who could have been champions, but their parents weren’t interested in the sport or they were unable to afford it.
FirstLoser: That’s a real shame when that happens. But tell me, is there something that sets a champion apart from everyone else in terms of personality traits, or habits, or constitution, apart from their natural talent? In other words, if you can see something in someone, can you mold them into a champion despite maybe a lack of natural ability?
Coach Hildebrand: While kids may be natural athletes or possess natural talent to run fast, or jump high, no one has natural ability to skate. It’s not natural to maintain a squatted position and lean to the left, bearing weight on the sides of your feet! Speed skating is anything but natural. It takes years for athletes to develop into efficient speed skaters via building muscle memory. The kids that are great athletes and have success early often drop out after a few years when the training required becomes more intense. I’ve made champions out of many skaters who appeared to have little natural athletic ability, but were willing to put in the work required to perfect their technique. The traits I see in the top skaters I’ve worked with from here and from other countries are a passion for the sport, and a great work ethic. The great ones have the ability to push themselves past their comfort zone day-in-day-out, and they have goals; they’ve got a direction, and a plan to get there.
FirstLoser: Staying with that ilk, with regard to Brittany and Joey…they started skating about the same time, and have followed similar trajectories in becoming the US Olympians they are today. When they were coming up under your coaching, did you find yourself showing them favoritism?
Coach Hildebrand: I’m sure there were people who thought I favored them, however, I feel I was harder on them. The more successful they became, the more I insisted they be confident and humble. They had to be role models for the rest of the team. I had high expectations of them and they lived up to them. I always say my favorite skaters are those that work the hardest at practice, so they were two of my favorites.
FirstLoser: I imagine there were times when you maybe found it hard to manage the team with such high-level talent on it. I can see you having to serve as a diplomat as much as, maybe at times even more so, than serving as coach and mentor. In terms of the diplomacy involved in running a team as large and dominant as Team Florida, how did you balance the attention you paid to those skaters that had the drive to make it as far as the Olympics, versus those that were just coming out for recreation? Did you run into situations with parents or other skaters that didn’t quite agree with your approach?
Coach Hildebrand: You’re right, a team that size with so many great skaters required diplomacy to manage well. As a coach, I really try hard to give attention to all the skaters, as long as they’re giving the effort. I’m just as excited to coach a beginner as a world class skater when they work hard! Now on the other hand, I have a hard time if a skater won’t give it their all at practice, regardless of their level, so yes, I find myself showing them less attention. I try to get them motivated, but if they’re not self-driven to some extent, I won’t waste my time. Of course, there have been parents who haven’t agreed with my coaching philosophy along the way, but I’ve really had very few skaters ever go to another team.
FirstLoser: What’s the best advice you have for other coaches out there when it comes to developing a skater’s talent to its fullest potential? Or, to put it in more blunt terms…how are the Olympians made?
Coach Hildebrand: How are the Olympians made? That’s a really big question. The simplest answer would be to make them believe they can do it. As a coach, I start with making them understand that the effort they put into skating, or anything else, is directly related to the results you get out of it.
FirstLoser: Certainly has a simple, natural law feel to it. But there’s got to be a significant investment behind it, from both the skater and their coach.
Coach Hildebrand: Well, the making of an Olympian is a long process and often begins years before the athlete even realizes it. The most difficult thing to do is to keep children and teenagers involved in a particular sport for the ten to twenty years required to reach the top. It’s the coaches’ job to keep the athletes motivated, interested and having fun. The coach has to convince the athletes that all the hard work will pay off, and there has to be trust for the coach and their methods. A big part of keeping the skater motivated and developing them includes getting them to the right competitions. In the USA, there is a tendency to focus solely on indoor skating, and that puts us at a disadvantage on the international level. Since other countries don’t have rinks, the rest of the world focuses on outdoor competition. Beginning in 1999 I hosted skaters from other countries to come and train with my team. They would learn how to skate indoor and we would learn all we could from them about outdoor skating. I’ve continued to host skaters in my home, including national, European and World Champions. This has benefited my program immensely. This exchange of information has been critical to my success as a coach. Then I took my skaters to France, Colombia and Belgium beginning in 2000. I realized they needed the international racing experience to be successful at the World Championships. Those trips to France with Joe Cotter, Charlie Lucas and Gypsy Lucas were instrumental in the learning process of international competition. Not only did the skaters and I gain valuable experience, I learned tons from these coaches every time we went. We also fell in love with international banked track racing! The love of the sport is what keeps the athletes training year after year in pursuit of their dreams.
FirstLoser: You’ve had many assistant coaches over the years, running such a large team out of multiple locations. What is it you look for in an assistant coach, and for that matter, why has Team Florida gone through so many of them? How do you maintain the integrity of your program and approach over such distances and through so many other people?
Coach Hildebrand: Well, I can’t say I ever left Team Florida, I still take my kids to Team Florida practices! I’ve continued to coach some of the skaters outdoors. But yes, in 2007, I decided to focus primarily on outdoors, and a lot of parents and skaters on Team Florida wanted to continue focusing on indoor events. I had another coach come into SkateMania to continue Team Florida. I had been going to Belgium doing clinics for several years and in 2007, I was selected to be the World and National team coach for Belgium. Coaching skaters at the world level and seeing the progress as a country was very rewarding. I had no real desire to ever get back into indoor competitions. I wanted to build a track in my yard and train skaters from all over the world, but unfortunately I couldn’t sell my other house to get it done. In 2010, I had some major life changes and while I continued to coach a couple days a week outdoor, I was unable to maintain the five to six day a week practice schedule. But in terms of the talent we’ve had on the coaching staff, yes, I guess there have been a lot of coaches over the years, however, coaching is basically a volunteer job and it is life consuming, so attrition is high. But the main reason I haven’t been deeply involved in the sport in the last 3 years is due to the fact that I adopted two boys and became a grandmother in 2010! The boys are sons of a speed skater I coached early in my career. Due to personal issues, she had custody issues. Her Mom was one my best friends and I just couldn’t imagine her not knowing where her grandchildren were. The boys were only in foster care for four weeks before I was able to get certified as a foster mom. The next year was full of parenting classes and home visits while I applied for adoption. Unfortunately, their grandmother died of lung cancer about a year after I got them. I thought I could just teach them to skate and continue my coaching, however, they needed more of my personal time than I’d realized. I had to make them my priority after all, I’d volunteered to parent them! They’d spent the last 3 years watching their mom struggle, and they’d had very little parenting and a great deal of drama. My boys are 12 and 15 now and they’re still a work in progress, to say the least. But they want to skate, so I’ve recently started a new team, Ocala Speed!
And with that, we wrap up part one. Coach Hildebrand has a new purpose and drive behind her new team, and she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She’s actively recruiting skaters, hitting multiple practices a week, and balancing her role as mother and coach with the same determination and dedication she’s always shown those things she’s got a passion for.
As our chat continues, we’ll get her take on the current state of the US program and what it’s going to take to get the USA back on top of the podium. There’s also that little competition going on over in Russia, and she’s got plenty to say about that too. One thing is certain, whatever her opinion, it’s always centered on the skater, first and foremost.