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If you open the pages of any of your favorite magazines (mag-a-what?), at some point you’re going to come across one of those obnoxious “Our Top 10 Things Our Editors Got Bribed To Tell You To Do Before You Expire” lists. Well, in the spirit of trying to give you something to think about as you’re out there thinking about all of the skating you’ll do in this new year, here’s this skater’s attempt at joining the club of overblown bucket list wonks…
In a nutshell, on this list you’ll find ideas, activities and excuses to spend your hard earned cash on in pursuit of more time on wheels. Take it for what it’s worth, and keep the change ya filthy skate animal.
10. Build the ultimate skate bench. Get all those spare frames, beat bearings, stripped axls, worn wheels and stinky boots out of the boxes and onto the countertop of your very own workspace. As the skater of the house (or Alpha Skater if there’s more than one of you and you need to quickly jockey for this coveted position of ultimate dominance) you need a space to call your own. That quiet, peaceful, wondrous place for you to fine tune your equipment and spend long hours stroking a hair dryer over your carbon fiber. (Makes a good spot to stash girly magazines too.)
9. Skate a marathon. Point or point or crit-skate, there’s really no better way to get a real bang for the buck with every dollar of that entry fee than by skating 26.2 or more miles with your fellow masterblader’s in all your spandex-clad glory. Put it this way, when you’re skating outdoors in a skinsuit alone…you’re a wannabe. But in a large group going incredibly fast in tight packs, you’re a spectacle. You’re part of an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, fueled by tiger’s blood, adrenalin and big wheels strapped to your feet. No one will make fun of you, and you’ll have had the experience of a lifetime, even if you place second.
8. Skate an indoor meet. I haven’t done this yet but they tell me it’s fun. Actually, that’s not true. I used to approach every practice as if it were Nationals, so in that sense, I was skating an indoor meet several times a week. And I was winning, big time. But that was against 6 year old beginners on PlaySkol blades. (Crushed them ankle biters.) But if I had to register in my age division with anyone skating more than three months, it’d probably be a different story. I had planned on skating indoor meets last year, and the year before, but now I’m not so sure it’s in the immediate future. Still, it’s a bucket list item, so on the list it stays. I encourage everyone reading this to at least give an indoor practice a try.
7. Skate outdoors, preferably on a mixed-use recreational trail. This goes the other way. I’m continually surprised when I meet indoor skaters that don’t own outdoor wheels, and have never even tried skating around a parking lot. Look…there’s a whole wide world out there beyond the funky smell and bad carpet of your local sweat shop (rink). Set your frames in a neutral, middle of the boot position, get some beat up indoor wheels and at least go for a short skate on a wide sidewalk. It could quite literally open whole new worlds for you, not to mention simulating the feel of a WIC event. Dude, the rest of the world competes outdoors…
6. Send me money. You know you want to. IM me for details. It’s the right thing to do.
5. How do you keep a skater in suspense? Come back next time, I’ll tell you. Till then, keep it rollin’…
Like a fat guy who’s resolved to send his skinny pants off to the clothes drive box in the Arby’s parking lot, I’ve traded in the 110s for One20Fives.
See you in September in MN.
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.
“The excruciating pain that you find intolerable, the pain that mentally rips you apart and breaks you, the kind you hope never to experience again… that’s the pain I live for.” – Joey Mantia
The road to the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia is winding down. In just under two weeks, Joey Mantia will make his first appearance in the Olympic Games, and that being the case, the skater is laser focused on the task at hand. Fourteen days to peak mode. It’s all led up to this, all the years, all the training, the ups, downs and in betweens.
Given the enormity of the events unfolding before him, and the intensity of his training in this final build-up to the games, it’s no wonder we now find Joey in a somewhat nostalgic place. One can stay locked in the high-stakes present-tense at such extreme levels for only so long before the need down-shift becomes an absolute necessity. When he is able to settle for a while, it seems he’s finding comfort in the memory book that he holds in his head, full of memories of the races, places, coaches and teams he’s been a part of over these many years in skating. Looking across the entire span of his career, he’s decided to share more about the experiences and people that have helped get him to this place, the #RoadToSochi:
FirstLoser: I know for a lot of us, we wonder what it’s really like to train at a level that gets you ready to even think about Olympic competition. You’ve undoubtedly trained to extreme levels to make it this far. So now, with two weeks to go, tell us what you’re out there in Italy working on before the start of the games.
Joey Mantia: I’m putting in one more hard cycle before the games and pretty much just working on locking in that “sweet spot” feeling on the ice. At the end of the day, skating is a technical sport, and the guy that skates the best on the ice usually wins. I understand the importance of that, and although I won’t sacrifice my physical work load to make more room for technical work, my mental focus is heavily weighed on the technical side of things.
FirstLoser: So there’s technique, then there are the conditions you’ll be skating in. Because Sochi is at sea level, the ice is supposed to be slower. How does that play for the type of skater you’ve become?
Mantia: Slow ice seems to be a benefit for me. This season, I skated terribly at the first two World Cups, and they were both on really fast ice. Then, when we went to sea level, where the ice is significantly slower, I started skating much better, actually becoming competitive with these guys. I think the slower ice gives me a chance to relax and not have to deal with as much lean in the turns, which is something I’m still learning how to do, so at the end of the day, it’s a personal advantage for me that Sochi will be slow.
FirstLoser: People are thinking world records and Olympic records will be hard to come by as a result of the venue. Is that important to you?
Mantia: Records are great, but there’s no guarantee that they will last forever. If I can make it to the podium at these games, that’s an accomplishment that no one will ever be able to take away from me, that’s the focus.
FirstLoser: Fair enough. So with this being your first games and you being relatively new on the ice, how do you see yourself skating against these guys who’ve already won numerous gold medals in your events?
Mantia: I’m not going to the Olympics to just participate… I’m chasing gold. I proved to myself in Berlin that I have what it takes, I just need to bring everything together and make it happen in Sochi.
FirstLoser: Man, to even be able to make a statement like that…you’re in a position to actually do it! Did you ever really think, long ago when you were a little kid slogging it out back in Florida, that you’d be sitting there in Italy freezing your butt off tonight, with two short weeks between you and the opening ceremonies?
Mantia: When I was a kid, I just lived in the moment. I loved the sport. I couldn’t get enough of being on my skates, but I never really thought about where it could take me. In hindsight, there was a point where I almost ruined this entire Olympic opportunity for myself. When I was in elementary school, there was a period of time that I got teased so hard for being a skater that I seriously considered quitting.
FirstLoser: I still get made fun of for doing it, but that’s another story…go on.
Mantia: I remember coming home from school pretty upset. Some of the kids at school and in the neighborhood would call me names and stuff, you know, typical things kids that age do, I just really took it to heart.
FirstLoser: Today that wouldn’t be teasing though, it would be bullying, wouldn’t it?
Mantia: I guess I never really considered it bullying, but either way it wasn’t fun. Anyway, that went on for a couple months, and I went through a little point where I stopped wanting to go to practice because of it. I guess I was ten or eleven at the time, but I still remember.
FirstLoser: How did you overcome that challenge at such an early age?
Mantia: You know, I don’t really remember telling my parents about it, I would just make up different excuses for why I didn’t want to go to practice. Luckily, my dad didn’t ever let that slide, he was pretty strict about never missing practice. I’m thankful for that now because it’s probably one of the main reasons I am where I am today.
FirstLoser: So then, having lived through that, what advice do you have for kids dealing with something similar, being able to look back on it from where you are today, as an Olympian?
Mantia: Looking back, it was just a huge inconvenience. It affected me emotionally, and caused a lot of unhappiness, but at the end of the day, skating made me happy, and that was more important than anything. I guess my best advice is just to realize that it’s a small phase of your life, it’s not going to last forever. Most importantly, as hard as it is to realize right now, those who make fun of you for petty things like that…they don’t matter at all. I feel like more often than not, those are the same people who’ll end up envying what you’ve become later in life. Life is going to be full of incredible opportunities; you’ll come out on top in the long run.
FirstLoser: Did that experience help form the dominant skater you became?
Mantia: No man, I just felt pretty bad about it. I felt like I wasn’t accepted. At that age, I didn’t have a goal to be the best in the world, I just liked to skate.
FirstLoser: I imagine at some point, as you got into high-school and started racking up the medals, things started to change for you, yes?
Mantia: Yeah. I remember, the older I got, the older everyone else got, it became cooler that I was a skater. I was traveling around the world doing what I loved to do. Then in high school, it was a lot more “legit.” By the time I was a senior, everyone seemed pretty stoked about it (laughs). I was in high school with a professional skating contract, living the life!
FirstLoser: Tell us a little about “the life.” You clearly had a great time. What was that like?
Mantia: It was awesome man. The money was coming in year to year. I was able to buy my own things, help my parents out with bills and stuff. I was traveling around the world training and racing…it was the dream.
FirstLoser: In terms of skating, who were the important people in your life at the time?
Mantia: Doug Glass (owner of Nestivo, the makers of Luigino skates) was my mentor. It was Renee (Hildebrand) who molded me into an athlete and created the base upon which my career was to be built. There was nobody better for the job. It was Doug who taught me how to race against the best guys in the world, on a World Class level. He had experience; he knew what it took to win. He had done the same for (Chad) Hedrick.
FirstLoser: What was that training and mentoring like?
Mantia: Nothing was ever better than training in Ocala (Florida, his boyhood home) with Team Florida. I was on Renee’s program, with a huge team to support my growth. Practices were even more effective because of the sheer number of people that attended. We would have burn-paces that wrapped around three quarters of the floor; it just raised the competitiveness of each workout to the next level. The mentoring was something I really needed. I wasn’t the most confident skater back then, and Doug gave me no choice but to be ruthless. Losing was never an option. That being said, if the races didn’t go as planned, he would break down exactly why and we would move on to the next one, it was a healthy environment.
FirstLoser: That sounds incredible. And with the weather, you guys were always outside too! I’m jealous! How frequently does a team like that practice?
Mantia: When I was young, I can remember we had outdoor practice at least two times a week. We’d do indoor four times a week. Plus, there were all the sessions I was skating. (Laughs) I was on my skates a lot as a kid.
FirstLoser: Well, I’ve seen pictures of those old Team Florida practices; those were some huge lines, full of elites, especially those outdoor sessions. You were probably racing each other constantly, weren’t you?
Mantia: Yeah, definitely. There was one guy, Paul Fitzpatrick. That kid is probably responsible for me being good when I was younger. I never wanted him to beat me, and he never wanted me to beat him. We battled every day.
FirstLoser: With such a big, competitive team, what was it like at practice? Did you guys bicker a lot?
Mantia: (laughs) Funny thing. I remember when I was younger and getting faster, I was to the point where I needed to move back behind the sophomore girls in the burn pace, and they did not like that. I could just hear them talking crap in front of me after I did it. (Laughs) But I moved back anyway, and after a practice or two it was just accepted. All in all, everyone got along pretty well though; we were a big family.
FirstLoser: So was it at that point that you realized you were getting a lot faster?
Mantia: I guess it was one day at outdoor practice when it hit me. A few people were making a big fuss about me leading too fast and I remember thinking that it wasn’t that fast. But from then on, I just knew that if people were mad because they were hurting to keep up, I was skating well. I’ll never forget what Renee told me once. She said, “…if everyone likes you, you’re not skating fast enough.”
FirstLoser: Ah, that’s great line. You did that so often, just dropped the field, leading really fast. I mean, how many races did you finish with literally no one on you, and how much did your team play a role in those dominant races?
Mantia: (Laughs) It’s happened a time or two. My last year as a junior at worlds, I was pretty strong. I won ten of the twelve gold medals. The other two were silver. I finished a few races there with no one close. Over the years, I won a lot of world titles pretty much alone, but there were times where I absolutely couldn’t have won without the work of the team. Actually, my first Junior World title ever, Terrence Almond was the perfect teammate.
FirstLoser: That leads us to an inevitable question. How have you dealt with haters throughout your career?
Mantia: That’s a weird situation, because those on the receiving end say things like, “I love the haters.” I’ve said it before myself, but it’s a facade. No one really wants people talking negatively about them. In terms of dealing with it, I just learned to accept it after I realized something: if people choose to talk about you, regardless of what they’re saying, it’s a bit flattering when you consider how many things there are in this world they could choose to talk about. Most of the time, the people that are saying negative things, don’t really know you at all.
FirstLoser: Well, I can’t imagine anyone is talking smack now. Let’s get back to where you are today. That little kid that got picked on has made it to the big time. You’ve already shared what it was like to make the team, but you’re actually skating two individual events, the 1,000m and the 1,500m. It’s the 1,500m that you’ve said is your sweet spot. So let’s come forward in time, but back just a bit to what was going through your head when you were on the starting line in the 1,500m at Olympic Trials. You’d already made the team, now you’re going for your second event. What were you focused on before the gun when off?
Mantia: I was still really nervous because I didn’t feel very good on my skates in the warm up, and I knew it was going to be a rough race. I’m getting better at identifying that, and also getting better and fixing it before I actually step on the line, but I haven’t perfected the art yet. Knowing I was already on the team was a little relieving, but my best shot at a medal in Sochi is undoubtedly the 1,500m, so I really needed to make the team for that event, the pressure was still on.
FirstLoser: On that subject, perfecting the art of calming your nerves, have you developed any pre-race habits or rituals that get you in the zone and out of that nervousness? Do you have a special mantra you repeat to yourself?
Mantia: Not really, I just try to focus on the task at hand and really break down my race strategy over and over before I get out on the ice, but it’s not a set routine every single time. I get nervous thinking about a routine or ritual before I go out there. I just like to keep calm and focus.
FirstLoser: Do you use visualization techniques to do things like “see the win before it happens?”
Mantia: Yeah, I definitely use that technique sometimes. It helps to see it before you step out on the ice. If your mind is in a familiar place, the body always reacts much better.
FirstLoser: Did you use it in Berlin, before winning your World Cup gold? Did you see that win before it happened?
Mantia: Now that I think about it, no actually. I was skating badly that whole week at practice, so I just went out in the race and tried to nail a couple technical things to the best of my ability. I never step on the line to lose, but I guess the long term goal at that point was to get the skating dialed back in really tight before Olympic Trials. I guess that further solidifies my belief in the skater who skates the best usually wins.
FirstLoser: How about in trials? Did you expect that you’d do so well in the 500m? Were you training for that race or was your race performance just reflective of your overall conditioning?
Mantia: I never train for that race, although I really, really wanted to make the 500m, just for peace of mind during the rest of trials. Even though I came up short, it was nice to make a big personal jump in my performance. My start is so awful on the ice that it makes being competitive in that event impossible; I definitely want to spend the next 4 years with that as one of my main focuses.
FirstLoser: That’s one of the areas the live commentators zeroed in on during the televised portion of trials. They’d call out the difference in the “inliner” start versus skaters who’d come up on ice. Generally, there’s been a lot of hay about inliners being so dominant this year, but it’s nothing new. Everyone has an opinion, so how about yours? From the man at the top, why are inliners so strong in long track?
Mantia: Pain. I think we aren’t afraid to hurt like hell when we come over. Moreover, we typically have pretty good work ethic on the ice. I also think that we have a decent idea of what it feels like to have efficient strokes, and that sweet feeling you get when things just click and it becomes “easy.” Knowing that exists keeps us hungry and always searching for that Holy Grail, so to speak.
FirstLoser: You point to the kind of pain you live for on your blog. Where has the pain been for you during this transition, the past two seasons on ice? Where have you found the greatest mental challenges?
Mantia: Just in this last season alone, the Calgary and Salt Lake City World Cups were really tough on me. Skating in Calgary was hard, it was the first big competition of the season and things were just not clicking. I was down in the dumps bad. Same for Salt Lake City. I just knew it wasn’t going well, but I still had to go out and race. That sucked. That’s where the mental agony comes from. It’s like knowing you don’t know some of the words to the national anthem, but having to go out and sing it in front of thousands of people anyway. It’s that kind of pain (laughs). I’m just hard on myself when it’s not going well.
FirstLoser: How much of a motivator is it for you to turn things around, that kind of pain? Do you wake up one day, snap out of it and charge forward? I mean, clearly it works for you. Describe the rebound effect.
Mantia: It’s a huge motivator. It takes time on the ice, because for me, it’s almost always something technical, so figuring that out takes some time. Mentally, I’m ready to fix it instantly, but it usually doesn’t come over night.
FirstLoser: But how do you channel the bad vibes into positive outcomes?
Mantia: (Laughs) I just remember how bad it feels to lose like that and I do whatever I can to never feel that again. Sometimes you just can’t control it though, or so it seems.
FirstLoser: So then would you say you learned something about yourself mentally in Calgary and Salt Lake City that made you better, stronger and faster since?
Mantia: You know, I’m not sure, because I know what it feels like to fail. I’ve done it enough, and it sucks. Those kinds of experiences just confirm how much I hate it. But, I guess I do learn from those experiences. They just let me know how much harder I needed to work on the technique. They confirm what I already knew in that sense as well. I mean, at this point it’s either fail or achieve, and I’m beyond the point of needing extra motivation from losing. (Laughs) I’m not on the fence with how hard I should work at practice, or the amount of effort I put into visualizations and such. I’ve been one-hundred percent all-in for a while now.
FirstLoser: Yeah, you’ve been all-in for quite some time, that’s why you’re where you are. But you said something back there. When you say it’s almost always something technical to correct, what happens, do you just forget things? Is it nuance that you lose?
Mantia: Yeah, things I was doing naturally well and wasn’t aware of, I just occasionally stop doing those things out of the blue. So I happen to get it right by chance, and it goes in the right direction for a while, but then one day it just goes away, and because it was something I didn’t know I was doing, it’s hard to deal with and correct sometimes.
FirstLoser: Oh my God, I know exactly what you mean. What’s with that?
Mantia: When you’re a kid, you just go, you know? You don’t care too much about technique; it just starts to develop without too much direct focus. Really, it’s just the nature of the sport. Golf is the same way. You get older and a little more aware, and then it’s really just over-thinking that, at the end of the day, is the root cause of so many more hours being spent on form. It can be an exhausting double-edged sword.
FirstLoser: Well, then there’s the very different pain of having to have a day job while you’re putting in your time, paying your dues on the World Cup circuit, right? A lot of folks see skaters turning to gofundme and sites like that just to survive, because on ice, when you’re in training, you’re just playing a big “what-if” game till you can actually get to the games, right? What’s it like for you being an athlete making ends meet while training for the Olympics?
Mantia: I guess the best way to paint the picture is by asking, if you weren’t getting paid, would you continue to work your job week after week, for years, to possibly collect the money you’ve earned one day? But then, that paycheck is contingent upon you doing that job really, really, really well…so well that you’re one of the best in the world at it? The answer is probably “No way!” That’s pretty much what athletes do until they make it to the top. We train for years and years, risking never collecting that paycheck at all, because we don’t do it for the money, we do it for the feeling we know exists if we one day find ourselves standing on that first place podium. The problem is, that fuzzy, addicting feeling doesn’t pay for food, or rent, or any of the things we need to make that dream happen, so it’s a little stressful. Yeah, we could get jobs, but it would significantly take away from the quality of training and with time being of the essence, each practice must count for everything. Personally, I’ve been extremely lucky to have people help support me along the way. From my parents doing what they can to help, to donors on my gofundme site, to those buying my Olympic tees, it all adds up in a huge way, until I can hopefully make it high enough up again to where I can be self-sufficient.
What’s it all for, this investment in pain and humility? That shot at immortality that only an Olympic medal can deliver? Sure, that’s probably a huge part of it. But there’s more. The modern Olympic Games have endured for over one-hundred years for good cause, because they represent civilized man at his best. The idea that the nations of the world can come together, in good times or bad, and compete in a non-warlike spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect, it’s truly a noble effort that speaks well of us as a species. When the 230 members of the US Olympic Speedskating Team arrive in Sochi, Russia in two weeks, they’ll be representing us in that endeavor. The pain they’ve endured will have been on our behalf. Their goals become ours, as a nation. And as we’ve seen through Joey’s example, the evolution of his Olympic spirit started long ago. His #RoadToSochi has been long, having started well before ever stepping foot on the ice. And as he’s just now getting to that place where he’ll be in peak condition, standing ready to represent us, we can anticipate that he’ll be out there giving it his all, because it’s what he’s trained to do.
With just under two more weeks to go, we’ll wrap up our time with Joey by bringing it back home to inlines in part three of our conversation, just as he’s entering the Olympic Village as one of the best ice skaters the world has ever seen.
“The preeminent victory you dream about as a kid, the victory that makes all the sacrifices worth it, the kind you attain over your fiercest rivals that brings you to the top of the world…that’s the victory I live for.” – Joey Mantia
If you’re reading this and you’re a skater, you know. Joey Mantia is one of the most successful inline speed skaters in history. 28 World titles, countless national records, verified world speed records…there’s little he hasn’t achieved in the sport of inline speed skating. We’re talking about the most decorated inline speed skater of his generation. So it came as no surprise when he traded in his wheels for steel, in pursuit of Olympic gold on ice with US Speedskating. It was inevitable.
It’s one thing to be selected to participate in the joint USA Rollersports / US Speedskating / US Olympic Committee Wheels on Ice Program (WhIP), but it’s quite another to make the US Speedskating World Cup Team, and something yet again to make your way through Olympic trials to earn a berth on the US Olympic Speedskating team. Mantia’s done it all, in just a little over two ice seasons, or less than a typical four-year period between Olympic games. He really hasn’t been on the ice all that long at all.
As if this weren’t enough, he stunned the long track world by winning a gold medal in the 1,500m World Cup race in Berlin in his second season on the World Cup team, just one stop away from Olympic trials, earning the respect of the best long track speed skaters in the world. And yet for every success Mantia achieves, he becomes not more mythic, but more human, more approachable. He’s humble. He’s connected to his fans and friends.
In the age of social media, his Twitter feed and Facebook walls are full of pictures of him with the skaters he’s connected with over the years, from all walks of life. At clinics or races, on the track and off, he’s always been known as a skater you can talk to. Joey, “The Professor,” who you can ask for advice. He’s a skater so passionate about the sport, he’d tell you how to beat him because it would make the race more of a challenge.
He’s a skater’s skater, as trite as that sounds. Even in his WhIP years and now today as an Olympian, he never abandoned inline speed skating. He’s been right here, either in-person announcing at an NSC (National Speedskating Circuit, the professional inline speedskating league he co-founded with Miguel Jose) event, or showing up to race and win on inlines at a World Inline Cup race. Inline speed is in his DNA. He’s truly a champion for us all, because he never takes himself as seriously as he takes his own technique. Thus, this interview came to be.
Conducted over these weeks since he made the US Olympic Long Track Team headed to Sochi, Russia, to compete in the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Joey made time to talk to us, the inline community. Without further ado, Mantia speaks on his #RoadToSochi:
FirstLoser: Congratulations man. You’ve earned a place among the greats at the top of the world. I know I speak for many when I say how happy we are for you. A legion of inline skaters feels pride in your accomplishment.
Joey Mantia: Thanks man. Much appreciated.
FirstLoser: Tell us about the decision you made to become an Olympian. What was it that drove you to pursue this path?
Mantia: Well, for a long time it was something that Renee (Hildebrand, longtime coach and mentor) talked about when I was a younger, but I never really paid too much attention to it. I really wasn’t thinking about it at all, especially after I started making legitimate money from pro contracts with inline. But eventually, after competing in nine straight World Inline Championships and accomplishing all of my goals, I found myself lacking the hunger that molded me into the aggressive athlete I once was. The guy who laid everything he had out on the track at every practice. That guy was gone. I found myself starting to get soft. So that’s when I started thinking about what Renee had always talked about. I gave it a lot of thought, and ultimately decided that the only way to get the hunger back was to switch to ice and start from the bottom again. And start from the bottom again is truly what I did. (laughs)
FirstLoser: And the mighty will rise! When you think back along your entire career, was there anything you had to sacrifice in order to make it as far as you did on inlines? As far as you’ve made it now on ice?
Mantia: That’s a hard question to answer because I feel like I’ve always been fortunate enough to do what I love to do. So in a sense, no, there wasn’t any real sacrifice in my eyes. I guess from the outside looking in, I missed out on a lot of partying in high school and stuff like that, but man, I just wanted to be the best in the world at skating, and I took that very seriously.
FirstLoser: Look where all that partying got the Beib? Huh? No real loss there. So OK, let’s turn that somewhat on its head…is there anything you wouldn’t sacrifice now in order to make it further?
Mantia: Well, I would never sacrifice my happiness. Of course there are days at practice where I’m absolutely miserable because of the amount of work load, or because my skating isn’t really coming along as well as I’d like. But in the grand scheme, when I stop having fun doing what I’m doing, then I’m going to walk away and find something new that makes me happy again.
FirstLoser: OK, so people won’t let me forget it if I don’t ask, will you ever compete on inlines again?
Mantia: That’s a good question. (pauses) I’m not sure. I want to, but I don’t want to disrespect the sport by competing when I’m not ready, when I’m not at a level that I need to be at to compete with the top guys in the sport.
FirstLoser: Not even once a year like you have been, or another long, point-to-point marathon?
Mantia: Well, when you put it like that, I guess marathons are never out of the question. But the heart of the sport, skating Worlds – circuit style racing on track and road – I’m not sure I’ll ever do those again. But who knows? We’ll see.
FirstLoser: Yeah, sorry for the diversion, you’ve got bigger fish to fry right now. Back to where you are today. Let me ask you this, were there times you regretted making the decision to chase this Olympic dream of yours?
Mantia: Well, before I switched over to the ice, I was confident that I would be able to pick it up quickly and be where I wanted to be in a relatively short amount of time. I was confident. When I actually made the switch, I started doubting myself a little bit, I started questioning if I actually had enough time to get on the level I needed to be on to make the Olympic team. It was pretty much up until this season that I was miserable with the ups and downs. It was outright depressing how aggressive the lows were. On one hand, it was nothing I hadn’t experienced before with inline, but on the other hand, this time I felt like I was going through it alone. There was no comforting coach, no major sponsors, and no steady pay check. It was just me and my goals; it was do or die. It wasn’t that long ago that I was at a breaking point with a very short amount of time to get things straight. Luckily, I made it through to the other side.
FirstLoser: When you say it wasn’t so long ago, how long ago was it?
Mantia: After the first two world cups this season.
FirstLoser: Wow. Not long ago at all. I can only imagine the depth of that kind of despair. We’re all certainly glad you pulled out of it. And now you’re there, training at the top of the world, with the fastest skaters in the world. You walk among the gods of Olympus.
Mantia: (laughs) Thanks, but I wouldn’t go that far. I’m here though, and it’s cold! We’re training in Italy, outdoors. It’s in the low 30’s. It’s really miserable skating outside, you get numb in like thirty minutes, then it turns into just pushing hard and hoping for the best.
FirstLoser: Brrrrrrr. Man, sounds like skating inline outdoors in Colorado this time of year. But what I was saying was, you’ve made it. You’re there, from the bottom back to the top, now you’re one of them. How has your reception been among our nation’s elite? Have you been welcomed openly by other members of the team?
Mantia: Yeah, everyone is friendly, for sure. But at the end of the day, no one is here to lose, and you can feel that.
FirstLoser: Warm, not necessarily fuzzy, eh? Well, let’s talk about what’s gotten you to where you now sit, in the freezing cold over there. What’s the biggest thrill been for you so far on this Olympic journey?
Mantia: Undoubtedly, it was winning the World Cup in Berlin in the 1,500m. Winning that event was a rush I hadn’t felt in so, so long. When I was competing on inlines, I became addicted to the thrill of winning. Starting from the bottom when I switched to ice, I was deprived of that feeling, to the point where I forgot what it was like to win, especially when it really counted. That’s so crucially important to my mental and emotional toughness. Berlin is where I got it back. That was my tipping point.
FirstLoser: What about making the Olympic team? Was that the same kind of rush? Where does that rate on the same scale?
Mantia: It’s not the same, no. Making the Olympic team was more of a relief than a thrill for me, because the reality is, making the team was just an enormous stepping stone to the big show. Making it through trials gave me confidence and experience, but most importantly, making it through that competition gave me more time to sharpen up on the ice. That’s the reality.
FirstLoser: Wow. I get a thrill if they accept my application to take a beginners curling class at the local ice rink, and you take making the Olympic team in stride! (laughs) Jeez…So then, tell me, is there anything about the journey that’s been surprising to you, as in, you had no idea something was going to be so hard or so easy? What’s something that’s been unexpected?
Mantia: I didn’t take making the team in stride man, it’s just a different feeling from what I experienced winning that gold medal in Berlin. But on what you just asked, I guess the major shocker was how small the sport of long track ice skating really is. Sure, the recognition I experience now is bigger than inline, but that’s only because I’m going to the Olympics. Ice skating feels like this tiny little world when you’re inside of it. It was a really weird transition for me, coming from wheels. I’ll tell you this though, point-blank, long track is a man’s sport. There’s no hiding. The worthy win and the unworthy fail. It’s a study in simplicity, and that’s the odd beauty that can make an athlete fall in love with the sport if they stick with it long enough.
FirstLoser: It sounds like you’re there, in that love affair. And it’s work is what you’re saying. To stay on this subject for a minute, but to go to the technical tip, what was the hardest transition for you going from inline to ice? What did you have to work on the most to truly become a long track speed skater?
Mantia: The absolute biggest thing for me continues to be fine tuning where my center of gravity is and keeping my hips rock solid. I don’t know if I was just better at it when I was younger on my inlines, but I feel like when I switched to ice, I was technically pretty terrible on my inlines. It’s one of those things I look back on now and wish, for my own sanity and for the sake of time that I would have made the switch in 2007 when I was, technically speaking, skating the best I ever had. Now, I’m trying to pin-point that two to three millimeter position where my weight needs to be to make my skates work correctly, while at the same time keeping my hips from moving around, those are the keys to my success on the ice today. That’s where my focus is.
FirstLoser: Sounds like fodder for self-visualization and mental training too. Wow. OK, so back to the transformation you’ve undergone. What was the first thing to go through your head when you knew you’d made the 2014 Olympic team?
Mantia: (laughs) YES. YESSS. YESSSSS. YESSSSSSS. OKAY. Now, how do I get a lot better than this in a month?
FirstLoser: (laughs) That’s got to be a rush, then a panic!
Mantia: It wasn’t a panic, but I definitely understood the urgency of the task at hand.
FirstLoser: So when you come back down from that mental ledge, what’s the first thing that happens to you as an Olympic athlete? You know, is there some kind of immediate reaction from the USOC that’s triggered when you’ve made your spot? Black SUV’s pull out, large men in black suits with earpieces and sunglasses whisk you away to a secret, undisclosed location…
Mantia: Mmmm, yeah. No, nothing like that. To tell you the insider’s truth, there’s actually nothing really special. We did have a short team processing meeting, where Under Armour (US Speedskating sponsor) unveiled our new suits, and we got some cool Olympic long track gear, but other than that, life pretty much carried on like normal. It’s funny in a sense. People do end up treating you a lot differently when they find out you’re going to be in the Olympics, but you know, that’s the way the world works I guess.
FirstLoser: Your fans were able to be there with you too when you made the team, because trials were broadcast nationally live on Skater’s Place – oh, no, I mean on national television on NBC. How did that factor into your performance that day? Did knowing you were skating on national television have an effect on your game?
Mantia: I didn’t really feel the presence of the cameras too much, but it did give me a little extra motivation to leave everything out there on the ice and finish each race with my tongue hanging out.
FirstLoser: So when you hit this level of success, the off-ice distractions undoubtedly increase. Opportunities present themselves, and like you said, people start treating you differently. Have you gone Hollywood and gotten yourself an agent yet? Starting to see the promise of big-time endorsement opportunities as potential reality?
Mantia: As a matter of fact, I do have an agent. I’ll tell you, it’s tough to be an Olympic athlete from America, because there are so many good ones out there. To have a public career beyond the games, you have to have things like a good story, or a cool name, or you need to be completely dominant, or something along those lines, that’s how you get the big deals. For me, I’m still flying under the radar, because even though I have the utmost confidence in my ability, results are what matter, and I’m still new here, I haven’t done much to stand out yet.
FirstLoser: Well, now that you’ve risen to this height, where you’ll soon have that opportunity to stand out among the world’s best, describe for us how do you feel, deep inside, when you’re alone with your thoughts and no one is looking. What do you feel when you think about skating in front of the world at this level?
Mantia: I think the best word to describe that feeling is surreal. I can only visualize what I think it’s going to be like when I get there, what I think it’s going to be like to walk in during opening ceremonies. These are all assumptions I’m making based on the stories and the things I’ve seen on TV. I’m just trying to prepare myself as much as possible for the enormity of what’s about to happen.
When you consider the intimidating figure he strikes in his official US Speedskating, Lockheed Martin / Under Armour Mach 39 competition skin suit, and you take in his words, you see the portrait of a man whose exterior doesn’t betray the skater within. While there are those among us who can identify with where he’s at to a certain level, for the rest of us mortals, this reveals a state we’ll never know, that place reserved for those who’ve given it all, who’ve pushed themselves as far as they could, just to get the chance to push it even further in the Olympic games.
Joey Mantia stands ready at the starting line between here and eternity. He’s on the edge of immortality that only Olympic gold can bring an athlete of his caliber. There’s more to this story, and with just about two weeks to go on the #RoadToSochi, we’ll talk more with Mantia, vicariously living out this adventure with him here through this conversation, and through Facebook and Twitter. We’ll be pulling for him all the way, giving back in-kind what he’s so freely given our sport over the years. We’re standing with him in spirit, shoulder-to-shoulder, here where he is now, at the top of the world.
Alright, this post is late. It’s the holidays, and I’m getting lazy. It’s New Year’s Day, and I haven’t had a shower since Christmas. I haven’t gotten out of my Captain Kirk bathrobe in over a week. And when I saw that picture of The Bieb toking a J, I was ready to cut the laces off my boots and never skate again. Or not…
This is the last installment of the Larson Trilogy: Episode III. And I was a hair’s width from starting this off with a really weird version of the Return of the Jedi opening crawl, but instead, I’ll just stick to the facts.
First, this. Another record for Jim Larson. Episode II of The Larson Chronicles generated the single largest traffic day this blog has ever seen, breaking a record set by a post on Joey Mantia set back in 2010. When Joey was contacted at Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City, just before he’d made his first berth on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Long Track Team, he was asked if he’d said something like, “Congratulations Jim, on breaking a record I didn’t even know I held. I truly didn’t see that coming. At all.” He didn’t respond. Nonetheless, it’s a milestone on this site, thus another record in front of me with Larson’s name on it. So it goes…
We’re done with the small talk intro, let’s get to the story. We’re meeting for the last time, and I’m determined to get the information I need. How am I ever going to beat this guy? The last ditch is the gutter I’ve sunken to. My clever and cunning line of questioning has devolved to an offer of cash in exchange for his secrets.
FirstLoser: We meet again Jim. Tell me, what’s it going to take to get you to quit? I’ve made up my mind, I won’t come back till you’re gone, till you’ve failed to achieve your goals. How long is it going to take?
Jim Larson: [Standing, raising his hands and looking at the sky] I must be allergic to failure, cause every time I come close to it I just sneeze, but I just go atchoo, then achieve! You ain’t getting rid of me son. I’m here to stay. I’ve given too much, and I’m not done yet.
FirstLoser: OK, I’m not getting anywhere with this. Clearly, you’re still getting something out of racing and skating. With everything you’ve been through, you keep coming back for more. The ups, the downs, the injuries. It’s got to be pretty powerful stuff. Along those lines, what’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you as a result of all your skating?
Larson: Believe it or not, in terms of the sport itself, I would have to say teaching myself to be disciplined. Mental preparation is huge in this sport, the positive focus both on and off the track, indoor and out. And this goes with things in everyday life too.
FirstLoser: You’ve been at it a long time and you’ve done so many things with it. Of all the “ups” you’ve ever had, what’s the greatest?
Larson: That’s easy brother. The best thing to ever happen to me is my wife Denise. She’s known me since I was 7 years old man. I was able to talk her back into skating and the rest is a Cinderella story. We’ve been happily married now for over 13 years! So If I had to say the best thing, yes Denise is the best!
FirstLoser: That’s awesome, truly. All joking aside.
Larson: Yes sir, she is.
FirstLoser: But back to the sport. Taking the elder statesman’s view, what’s the best thing to happen to the sport in the last few years in your estimation?
Larson: [Looking off into the distance, like Richard Gere in awe of his technology in Movie 43] I feel the best thing to happen in this sport is that it’s still here! That’s saying a lot, considering that for every one skater coming in, two go out. It’s a war of attrition man, and we’re on the wrong side of history on this one. Really brother. The worst thing happening in this sport are it’s numbers. They’re the inverse of what they need to be. Skater numbers are getting lower, costs are getting higher. I’ll leave it at that.
FirstLoser: OK, look Jim. There’s been a lot of talk about the state of the US Inline program, and it’s generally not so positive. There are a lot of folks that long for the glory days past. Being a guy that’s pretty close to the epicenter of the establishment, your opinion matters. What does the US program need to do to get back on top in Inline?
Larson: This is a tough question, because there’s such a wide spread in the level of athletes we have. The talent spread, the mental action, the focus, the positive energy, the coaching, the drive, all have to take place at elite levels. We’re just not there with our program anymore, and all of that needs to take place together to put us back on top! To get back there is not going to happen overnight. Some say we need more bank tracks built, some say we need to travel to other countries and learn or compete with them.
FirstLoser: But what do you say?
Larson: I say neither. 30 years ago we still had the same amount of tracks we have today, and we did everything here. Other countries were coming here to see what the U.S. was doing. The question of the day that the world was asking was “how could they beat us?” We were the force to be reckoned with. No one was beating the USA in practically any race! I’m not exaggerating. So where is it going? Let me ask you this. What is the mentality of our society today? One word: our country has gotten used to being LAZY! I say this, if you want to do well, if you want to make the US World Team, win a medal at Worlds, then get off the couch, put down the freaking smart phone and go train! Go outside, go play, go skate, hit the gym, make a plan! Don’t wait for your friends to call you to go skate or train, take the initiative and go do it yourself!
FirstLoser: Seems pretty straight forward, but you know, in many corners today, that’s a tall order. Especially when the only way to do anything beyond the federation is to leave inline altogether and go to ice. Which makes me think, why have you never made the transition to ice?
Larson: Simple: too friggin’ cold! [Laughs] No, on serious note, I did try ice for a little while, back in the late 90’s. I dabbled in it for about a year or so on the short track scene. I liked it, but trying to swing both inline and ice just didn’t fit in my budget. And at that point, I was getting into it with a late start. At that point I just decided to follow my heart and concentrate on Inlines. Wheels are in my DNA. But if I’d stayed with it, it would have been to chase a title on ice as well.
FirstLoser: Well, there’s another topic that’s been burning up Facebook lately, and that’s the “Super-Team” concept. The idea that local clubs are dying because all the talent aligns with larger regional teams for relay opportunities. You’re someone who’s indulged in this, drinking from that fountain in many differnt regions over your career. What’s your take on the subject? Good or bad for the sport?
Larson: I really and honestly believe that the term “Super-Team” is a little overboard. I don’t blame skater’s for joining up with another club to make a relay team better, or a so-called stacked relay, but only in this direction: that I believe it creates competition, creates more entries on a regional or national level. Or if a sole skater doesn’t have any relays at all from the club he or she skates for, just as I’ve done in the past. When I first started on Inlines and one of the home town clubs folded, I really didn’t have anywhere to go, so I set out on my own to better myself as a skater and a person. I didn’t have any skaters my age, they were either all older or way younger. So I filled in on some Senior Relays at Nationals in my first year skating on Inlines, in a Senior four man relay no less! Talk about a rude awakening! If you could only imagine how I felt starting right next to World Champion, “Turbo” Keith Turner in the heat.
FirstLoser: [Laughs] And tell me, you beat him and set a freakin’ record, right?
Larson: Haha…*BAMN* [upside my head with his copy of Eminem’s latest CD] No, we didn’t make it out of the heat. So right there was a hint for me as a late Classic skater, not to try and skate in Senior Relays anymore. But since then I’ve skated a few, and I can honestly say I’m seasoned and can give those youngins a run for their money! So as for creating a “Super-Team”, on the flip side of the sole-skater argument, I’d say to a skater that’s seasoned and has had their share of National titles, participating as a Junior or Senior World Team member, or even a Medalist, I’d say stay home and build the team around yourself! Don’t do the “Super-Team” thing. I was once told that, and we have tried, but I’ve chosen to skate elsewhere at times because I’m essentially a sole skater. Denise and I are here in Springifled, IL and as a sole skater I’ve had to chase opportunities. I’ve been a part of Front Range out of Cheyenne WY, and had great relays too. I’ve also been a part of Emerald Coast, teaming up with David Weber, in which we placed in Master 2 Man twice even with a title. I’ve skated out of Wichita with Team United, and from there having gone back to Capital City Racing out of my hometown before heading off to Team Fast Forward. With Fast Forward, I have helped a lot of those skaters achieve their goals. I assisted in their training and together we placed at Nationals, with some making the Junior and Senior World Team. I can also say that I know how some coaches or even other skaters feel about some of these clubs getting skaters from other teams and making their teams stronger. I’ve been on the flip side of that and have been on the floor with other relay teams, thinking we had a shot at a title, just to lose to a team that was thrown together with all great skaters, in a two man, two mixed, or four mixed or four man! The reality is, it happens! Do I frown on it? Well, no, not exactly.
FirstLoser: But do you think it’s fair, I guess is the question.
Larson: Well, it’s fair to me because I feel that the ones that complain or are against it could have built a team as well, so the field is out there to draw from. There are plenty of dedicated skaters that would do this sort of thing in practically every region. Look, I really don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to this one. If we want to throw the word “recruiting” in there, we could do that. Is that right? Well, why is it wrong? Some of these skaters that make friends in this sport and skate against each other all year, they tend to talk and comments get made that sound like this, ”hey man, you should skate for us next year,” or “we would make a great two person relay and, we would have so-and-so for a four person! This is so typical. But how is it controlled, or how is it stopped? Nah, we can’t stop it. It’s going to happen, and keep on happening. For those that are really so concerned, there are rules set down by USARS on switching teams, but you know, rules are set to be bent and have grey areas that are manipulated. We always find loopholes to get past the rules! I don’t need to go any further than that because most clubs have done this anyhow, with recruiting or soliciting skaters from other clubs, building those “Super-Clubs”, “Stacked-Clubs”, “Super-Teams”, whatever name you want to put on it. Bottom line is this, whatever your speculation is as a coach or skater, it happens, and there’s nothing we can do about it. All’s fair in love, war and inline speedskating!
FirstLoser: As someone who’s heart and soul bleed for this sport, what gives you the most personal satisfaction in your skating career these days? Is it winning a medal, breaking a record, watching skaters you’ve coached move on to greater achievements? What’s the most gratifying thing you take from skating?
Larson: Oh man! It’s another simple one! My personal satisfaction is winning! I’m not happy if I am not winning. But winning to me personally doesn’t mean coming in first all the time. Winning to me is doing the best that I can do on that particular day, or in that particular event. Yes, coming in first adds to the excitement, but coming in 2nd or 3rd or even say, top 6 in a tough indoor race or outdoor race with who’s who in the race, and I’m good brother! And to jump on what you said, the greatest achievement has to be watching my niece, (Megan Gillis) who I coached, and watching her first World Championships, and watching her winning a silver medal! If any coach can experience this and have that opportunity, it’s a total high! Such a great feeling knowing that your investment in coaching a kid pays off when they go out of the country to skate against the best in the world, it’s a treat! Yeah, that would also have to be the gratifying experience as well, truly. Plus coaching, what is it? It’s me giving back all the tools I’ve put in my tool box. It’s giving those tools to a skater, or a bunch of skaters, and watching them put those tools to use and be successful at doing so!
FirstLoser: OK, so I’ve been having a lot of fun with you through this interview, but we really haven’t touched on the shtick I started out poking at when we started this: your injury last year. How are you coming along with your injury? What are you doing as far as rehab? Training? Healing?
Larson: I’m actually healing up pretty well. I’ve been back on my skates, Inlines and Quads, for about two months. I began on my Quads, just rolling around and going to the gym, riding a bike and working out upper body and such for core strength until I was released from the doctor to do full weight bearing workouts. Rehab went really well for me. A lot of the rehab I was able to do on my own, and I still doing what they gave me to do. A lot of my training is low and slow drills, from double backs, buckets drills, circle drills, pace lines, you name it. Starting out on my quads helped me quite a bit since the wheels are out wide for stability and balance. As far as my Inlines, I really have to concentrate on my balance and technique to help aid in strengthening my right leg. At first pushing hurt pretty bad, but the pain is basically gone now and I’m returning to skate the track to build my base back. So all in all, I’m coming along pretty well. But I want to circle back around to something we talked about earlier.
Larson: You asked about goals. My goal for this year, it’s to win the 2014 National Titles in Veteran Men’s this year in Lincoln, Nebraska. And yes, that would be on both Inlines and Quads!
FirstLoser: Hmmm, I think I’d still be in the Masters division, so OK, that’s cool, go for it. But before I let you go here, I want to touch on a topic that’s been gaining some steam here, namely, 125mm wheels. What’s your take on 125mm wheels?
Larson: Yeah I have seen some threads and product development on the 125mm wheels, and the frames from a one of the major players in the business. I had a chance to chat with Powerslide’s Michael Cheek the other day discussing the direction and the performance of these monstrous wheels. Mike explains to me the grip is beyond that imaginable of the others (100’s & 110’s) and that it took a few practices to get the hang of the power and the roll. But once he was able to maintain technique, he could maneuver like he was on rails. He’s assured me that even a skater of our build, the size wouldn’t hinder our performance once we got used to them, in which case it wouldn’t take long. Knowing the manufacturer producing these wheels, I can really say without a doubt that they will work and work well. But, of course the downside to the big size is that there is a wheel restriction size at the world level, set forth by F.I.R.S and the C.I.C. 110mm wheels are the largest right now. As far as indoor for USARS here in the U.S., I believe the restriction is set to 110mm wheel in any regional or national qualifier. NSC can do what they want, and I hear they’re thinking about them. But before everyone goes out thinking bigger is faster, because that’s how shallow thinking a lot of coaches and parents think, be careful making that purchase without doing the research first! I personally feel that with 125mm wheels hitting the market, we’ll see a lot more at the larger outdoor events here in the U.S. Maybe not at first, but I believe we’ll see it grow by the time the Northshore Inline Marathon hits again in September. Tell you what. If I’m doing well by then, I will probably be on bigger wheels if given that opportunity. The roll has to be phenomenal outdoor, with a solid wheel like that under your feet! So my take on the 125mm – simple: strap up or get left behind!
So that’s where Larson stands. Jim Larson isn’t done with this thing yet. He’s right in step with where the line’s going next. He’s finding his line again, and you can bet he’ll do everything he can to go out on a flyer and be in top shape for Nationals this year.
As we wrap up our time, we discuss and idea to keep this dialogue going, and to expand the conversation. That is if I can keep talking. I’ve lost three teeth during this interview process and I’m starting to get the shakes. That aside, there are plenty of guys and gals out there that have something to say in this family of ours, this inline community (pool of talent for the USOC) relevant to breathing new life into OUR sport.
So I rubbed some more whiskey on my gums to numb the pain and agreed to bring these skaters forward with Jim, to get the discussions off the private message boards and out into the social media space, on Facebook, where all quality content belongs. Because as much fun as it’s been to goof around in between questions here, at the heart of this dialogue is our passion for the sport. If you’ve made it through reading this far, you share that passion, and we’re going to bring you more.
So hang on tight, get down low and get ready to get in pace with us Off The Track. It’s a new take on an old idea, and it’s time has come again. This isn’t over, it’s really just begun. Join us: OFF THE TRACK