Ready When You Are

Like a chronic behind-the-wheel nosepicker who hasn’t picked and flicked in the last few trips to the Quiki Mart, I’ve been itchin’ to get back out there and slime someone’s windshield with nasal aggregate. It’s time to strap on and suit up…to start skating in earnest again.  Outdoors, on the trail. For fun, not profit. Actually, the only money I’ve been making money off speed skating the last few years is by selling my gear on ebay or Nettracing…but that hasn’t been paying the bills…like this sport ever did.

But I’ve also been thinking about writing again…about something more than Human Capital or shenanigans within Supply Chains. So I’m gonna start firing off snot rockets here on the blog, and I’m I’m gonna start skating again. Russell Stover’s Pectin Jelly Bean season is officially over, time to start masterblading with gusto.back

Where to start…well, it’s all about striding and gliding. About the speed of intelligent motion. It’s falling forward and double penetration. Whoops! I mean pushing, double pushing. (Awkward!) It’s about getting low, down in the heel, pushing the full blade to the side and falling forward. I think it’s like riding a bike, but…it’s not. Because cyclists still suck, at least here in my town they still do. F them. Freelz. Developing…bigly.

 

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Speedskating Without a Plan

firsthair

Happy New Year to all, including to my many readers and those who have raced me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love! You know that no one loves speedskating more than I do, because I’m a great, great lover of speedskating, and too, you know, I’m a very smart speedskater. While I’ve taken some time away from this blog, I haven’t exactly been taking a nap. You know, like I went away for three, four, six, eight, sixteen months and came back. No, no naps for me. I’ve been busy. And sometimes, I think about coming back to this thing, but, you know, I can only do so much in a day, and many times, this isn’t one of those things.

But look, things are getting bad out there. One of they key problems today is that speedskating is such a disgrace. Good people don’t go into speedskating. Well, maybe that’s not true, but who cares, I said it. I’m just saying whatever the hell our president-elect says, in the hopes that millions of people will start following me and I can quit my day job and be really, really rich, and stupid.

Like, I see they do this big race down in Colorado Springs now at the Velodrome. I think it’s great, really wonderful. But you know, when that dome went up, I was thinking it needed a wall too. And you know what, I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall around that Velodrome, and I will make Columbia pay for that wall. Mark my words. Because, why not?

You might think I’m incoherent, but I just need to say…and this should be obvious to you all…Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated speedskaters in Hollywood, doesn’t know me. Okay? It’s also been bothering me, all these things people say about my small feet. You know, I order my skates smaller than my shoe size, because I’m very smart. Look at those feet, are they small feet?

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And, [Skating rival Not To Be Named] referred to my feet: ‘If they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee. So you know, my toes are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body. So get a grip, okay?

So I haven’t decided yet if I’m coming back or not. But I’ll tell you this, I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke. And I love soda, it’s the best. But only Ginger Beer. Love Ginger Beer. I’m just skating without an agenda this year, and whatever happens, happens. We will see…

 

 

And there you have it…

  
This pretty much sums it up. The end..?

The obligatory “10 Things All Inline Speed Skaters Must Do” post – part 1

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.

7 months later, it hasn't gotten any better.

All kinds of good crap, labeled A through K, that I can’t live without. Now where’s my skate wrench…

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.)

"No worries General Kenobi, we'll overtake the Separatists on the highway. Victory is ours."

“No worries General Kenobi, we’ll overtake the Separatists on the highway. Victory is ours.”

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.

It was his indulgence of pre-race whip-its that ultimately undid his indoor career...

It was his indulgence in pre-race whip-its that ultimately undid his indoor career…

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.

Nothing feeds my ego more than dusting a cyclist on the trail...

Nothing feeds my ego more than dusting a cyclist on the trail…

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…

The closest I'll ever get to that many medals...

The closest I’ll ever get to that many medals…

6. Send me money. You know you want to. IM me for details. It’s the right thing to do.

That's one way to express yourself...

That’s one way to express yourself…

5. How do you keep a skater in suspense? Come back next time, I’ll tell you. Till then, keep it rollin’…

Pure Speedskaters…Resolve To Skate Faster

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.

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See you in September in MN.

Renee Hildebrand: Skaters First

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.

Coach Hildebrand (Left) with 1999's Team USA

Coach Hildebrand (Left) with 1999’s Team USA

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?

Right from the first season, Team Florida had a winning formula.

Right from the first season, Team Florida had a winning formula.

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…

Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia in Sochi, Russia 2014 as Olympians.

Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia in Sochi, Russia 2014 as Olympians.

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?

Stoking Olympic aspirations: L to R: Olympian Brittany Bowe, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

Stoking Olympic aspirations: L to R: Olympian Brittany Bowe, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

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.

She came to be known as Nasty Nay for a reason...

She came to be known as Nasty Nay for a reason…

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

Helping skater Katie Huffman with her start.

Helping skater Katie Huffman with her start.

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?

The most famous Facebook profile pic of 2014. With Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia.

The most famous Facebook profile pic of 2014. With Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia.

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.

Giving Erin Jackson some support at the 2014 Pan American Games.

Giving Erin Jackson some support at the 2014 Pan American Games.

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?

The right coach can really make a difference.

The right coach can really make a difference.

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.

Joey Mantia: From Inline to Olympiad – Part 2

“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

2014_Thanks_KC

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.

Ice RInk Renon/Ritten - the fastest outdoor speed skating track in the world, in South Tyrol, northern Italy

Ice RInk Renon/Ritten – the fastest outdoor speed skating track in the world, in South Tyrol, northern Italy.

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.

No one's in it to lose. L to R Shani Davis, Brian Hansen, Joey Mantia.

No one’s in it to lose. L to R Shani Davis, Brian Hansen, Joey Mantia.

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?

The future Olympian, doing what makes him happy.

The future Olympian, doing what makes him happy.

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?

From L to R: Seth Gordon, Paul Fitzpatrick, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

From L to R: Seth Gordon, Paul Fitzpatrick, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

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.

Stoking Olympic aspirations: L to R: Olympian Brittany Bowe, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

Stoking Olympic aspirations: L to R: Olympian Brittany Bowe, Renee Hildebrand, Joey Mantia.

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?

Why hawk? First in the 500m at Worlds.

Why hawk? First in the 500m at Worlds.

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?

Celebrating his PBR in the 500m at Olympic Trials.

Celebrating his PBR in the 500m at Olympic Trials.

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?

It wasn't uncommon to see Mantia doing circle drills in the infield before a big race.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Mantia doing circle drills in the infield before a big race.

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.

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