“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.