Category Archives: Motivation

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.

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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.

Support Team Mantia: jmantia.com
Joey’s GoFundMe Site: Joey Mantia gofundme
Follow Joey on Facebook: Official Joey Mantia Page
Follow Joey on Twitter: @jrmantia

Joey Mantia: From Inline to Olympiad

“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

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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.

The skater you can talk to.

The skater you can talk to.

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:

L-R Jonathan Garcia, Brian Hansen, Shani Davis, Joey Mantia.

L-R Jonathan Garcia, Brian Hansen, Shani Davis, Joey Mantia.

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.

Working hard in the freezing cold of the great Italian outdoors.

Working hard in the freezing cold of the great Italian outdoors.

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?

Berlin, the tipping point.

Berlin, the tipping point.

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.

The face of addiction.

The face of addiction.

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?

Crushing it in Berlin.

Crushing it in Berlin.

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?

Reaction to the 1,000m big personal best and qualification for the 2014 Olympic Team.

Reaction to the 1,000m big personal best and qualification for 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?

Earning his first spot on the 2014 Olympic Team at trials in the 1,000m.

Earning his first spot on the 2014 Olympic Team at trials in the 1,000m.

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.

Support Team Mantia: jmantia.com
Follow Joey on Facebook: Official Joey Mantia Page
Follow Joey on Twitter: @jrmantia

You want testosterone with that?

Like the very-nearly legendary rivalry and podium skirmish between Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy, I come at this blog post with a full-on head-butt that’s gonna set the skating world on fire. Jim Larson, the man, the myth. Yes, my arch-rival and nemesis, here, now, EXPOSED! That’s right – with this post I set out with one objective – to topple his reign of national medal counts for men my age, everywhere! But, you know, not quite for all of you, but for myself, ’cause that’s the way I roll…

How long you gonna be?

How long you gonna be?

When I got news earlier this year that the winning-est skater of my age divisions, dare say one of the greatest skaters of all-time, was sidelined with a broken leg, I smelled blood in the water. Being the skate-shark I am, I decided that if ever I had the opportunity to mount a comeback and go home with a national gold medal, the time was neigh. Forget about that whole thing of having to qualify up through regionals, I was going for the buy in my region. That’s right – with Larson out of the way, the podium was mine. I just needed to pack 9 months of training into 15 days and I was golden. Time for a comeback, yo.

Yeah – well, that was when I remembered how humiliating it was to take a third place medal in the 5,000 at ODN behind Jim and Norm Kirby, having been lapped by them. That’s when I decided it wasn’t a good idea to compete without really training. (I know – gimme a medal for profound insight.)

A pic so bad, you know I didn't photoshop it. (or did I?)

A pic so bad, you know I didn’t photoshop it. (or did I?)


In thinking about it, I went into that race with arrogance and poor preparation. I hadn’t paid my dues, just thought I’d phone it in. It’s clear that Larson pays his, every damn day. So there’s that, and because there are a lot of other tough competitors out there, all taking Larson out of the mix does is level the playing field, which makes everyone more aggressive. He’s in a class all his own.

Truth be told, I was cheering him and Norm on as they were passing me in that race, cause these guys are the bleeding heart of the sport. Cheering them on and cursing under my breath. But they’re a breed-apart, having come up in the sport, and still pushing it forward & faster, still dropping records, training hard, suiting up and showing up. They’re inspirational. And it dawned on me that while they’re generally well-known in skate circles, guys like this don’t get the glory like NSC skaters or World Team members. There’s a lot the rest of us can learn from this species of skater, so why not focus a lens on what it is they’re doing to achieve consistent results? They’re getting stronger and faster, year after year. I need to know how they’re training if I’m ever going to race against them with pride, so I need information. Thus, the idea was born, use the blog as cover to gather intelligence. Write a story that digs deeper into the training methods and mind-set of the warrior. We have a plan.

The only view of Larson I had in the previously mentioned "race".

The only view of Larson I had in the previously mentioned “race”.

It took a year, but I got it all! And I was ready to keep it to myself, but then he started asking about when I was going to publish it. Damn-it! Hadn’t anticipated that. No one reads this thing, so I thought I’d be safe. Crap. I’ve got to share this. But maybe I employ some counter-intell tactics like disseminating misinformation. Ah, that’s it. I’ll keep the real secrets to myself, tell you all the exact opposite of what he shares, and rack up the medals next year. (maniacal laugh, MANIACAL LAUGH!!!)

Yeah, well then there’s that detail of him still being among the living. If I’m ever going to show my face at another meet, I’ve gotta keep it real. Shoot. All this work…now for public consumption. Well, so be it. Game on.

Setting a record at ODN 2011

Setting a record at ODN 2011

If anything, this is a story about survival. Jim Larson is a a Home-Grown Champion in the truest sense of those words. This isn’t a guy who’s gone to Worlds and swept the field, but here at home, the guy has been accumulating titles, records and medals for years, at a rate unmatched by anyone else in any Division, period. So it’s not that we’re arch-rivals in it’s truest sense, because, after all, he’d have to know who I am first off, but also, I’d have to be on some sort of level close to his too. So the rivalry is all mine, but I see that as a good thing. This is a skating record to aspire too. So instead of using my Garmin’s training assistant, I load my goals on Larson pace, cause that’s public information. But what makes this guy tick? What’s he doing before he hits the track? Ah, I need to get inside his head. That’s it! If I’m ever gonna have a chance to pace him in a race, I need to be on his level. So let’s do some recon…

That's one team'o'talent, son.

That’s one team’o’talent, son.

FirstLoser: First off, thanks for agreeing to this. We’ve been trying to get this together for a while, and I appreciate that you’ve made the time to talk to me. So, for those who are meeting you for the first time, let’s drill into your credentials. Exactly how long have you been skating, either quads or inlines?

Jim Larson: Thanks bro. The pleasure is mine. I started in late 1974 on quads, the wood and powder days. I picked up on the inline scene in 1995 and actually didn’t compete indoor until 1997, when I made my first regionals and first nationals. I’ve gotta say, we all have to start somewhere. My firsts were not pretty, to say the least!

FirstLoser: Been there, done that man. I lost half my butt at my first Nats. Fun! So, let’s fast-forward fifteen-sixteen years, you’re older, wiser, been doing this consistently all this time, and you have a freaking huge year. How many Inline indoor, Outdoor, Marathon, (takes a breath) Quad indoor, Rollerderby titles & records did you win or break in 2012?

Larson's 2012 Season Recap

Larson’s 2012 Season Recap

Larson: Oh man! You want me to name them? If I’d known there’d be a test, I’d have stayed home. Just kidding. Let’s attack this by discipline. In 2012 for Outdoor Track (inline) I set the 300m time trial, broke the 500m record in the heat and the final, and I also set the 1500m record, so that’s 4 records. Moving to Road, I set the 200m and again broke and reset the record in 500m, and then again in the 1500m, so that’s a total of 8 records at the Outdoor National Bank Track and Road Championships.

FirstLoser: And some of those records were fresh, so none of this “it’s the wheels” crap.

Larson: Freshened them up myself! To continue, Indoor Inline, I went into 2012 setting goals and breaking down each individual race, determining how fast I could be and holding a lap average in order to set all the records, in hopes to set them in the heats and break them again in the finals…

FirstLoser: (internal monologue) ‘Heh,heh,heh…that’s it, reveal your strategy. He’s playing into my trap!’

Larson: …so, in order, I set the 700m record in the heat and broke it again in the final, same with the 500m. But the 1000m didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. I was on record pace through 8 laps and fell off pace a little at the end and missed the record by .30(tenths) of a second. Going into the final that night I thought well if I was that close, I know in the final the pace could be a little faster, so barring any mistakes it could very well be mine at the end of the race. But at the start of the race I was caught sleeping on the line and wasn’t able to nail the start like I normally can do without any hiccups, and I was second going into the first corner, and was passed by 3 people in a corner and a straight. That kinda set me back, and the guys really made me work, so I missed my opportunity in the 1000m, and that was when I realized the record wasn’t going to be touched. At that point, I was racing for the win and placement for the overall title. So records set on inlines in division was 4.

FirstLoser: That was Divisions, but you’re a big relay player as well.

Turning and burning for his relay team.

Turning and burning for his relay team.

Larson: Yes, The Relays. Well, we set the Veteran’s 2 Man record by over 4 seconds, and the Vet 2 Mix by 11 seconds! Choose your partners wisely, mine are always the best.

FirstLoser: So we’re at 6 on inlines for indoor so far? Dayum!

Larson: Yes, but hold on! Moving on to quads…

FirstLoser: Jeez…

Yes, quads too.

Yes, quads too.

Larson: Well, I was counting, son! I wasn’t planning on stopping at 6. I wasn’t totally satisfied missing that 10 lapper in Inline Division, so I set out on Quads to just dominate, and that’s where my head was at after coming off a good Inline season. But with some tough competition out there on Quads, I knew I would have to compete in solid fashion.

FirstLoser: Were you phoneing it in on Inlines?

Larson: (Laughs) Not at all, man! Stop trying to cause me trouble. So listen, on Quads, I set the 300m record in the heat, set and reset both the 500m and the 700m in the heats and finals. So that would be 5 more national records to add on Quads for 2012. So that would be a total of 19 records in 2012.

2012 USARS hardware

2012 USARS hardware

FirstLoser: Oh SNAP! That was just records? Dayum.

Larson: Yeah! As far as titles go, Indoor, Inline & Quad Veteran Men Champion, Inline & Quad Veteran 2 Man & 2 Mix Champion, Overall Track and Road Champion at Outdoor Nationals with 6 Gold Medals. That was just Nats, but then there’s NIRA National Champion, and the MRDA Rollerderby National Champion with my Rollerderby team “YOUR MOM”. So all in all, adding the titles, grand total…

FirstLoser: 14 National Titles in 2012. Goodness. Well, that’s just 2012. You’ve been knocking down records for years as you move through different Divisions. How many standing records do you hold now?

Larson: You’re really going to make me think about this one… (Long pause, at which point I head to the bar to drown my sorrows.) …where were you? Didn’t bring me one? This is over!

FirstLoser: Be right back…

Larson: Good, I need a little more time to think – got a calculator?

FirstLoser: (completely soused now, handing him a beer)

Larson: About time! What, no shots? (mutters something, can make out the phrase cheap bastard) Well, some records we don’t keep track of because USARS has done away with certain Outdoor and Indoor distances and Divisions, but I currently hold in Master Men Outdoor the record for the 300m on Road, which I’ll own forever because they eliminated the race . I also have a Quad Classic 2 Man 3000m record, another eliminated distance, then there’s the 3 Quad Veteran Men Records, 2 Inline Veteran Men records, 2 Inline Veteran Relay Records, 6 Inline 45-54 Master Divisions Outdoor Records on Road and Track…so where we at man? 15? Sounds good to me. That’s what’s standing right now.

At home on the podium longer than I've been skating.

At home on the podium longer than I’ve been skating.

FirstLoser: Yeah *hic* but we know we’re not done yet. You’ve had a long career, and some of your records have been picked off. Not by me of course.

Larson: Of course, you lousy drunk!

FirstLoser: Now, now…focus on your *hic* career records, and the titles you’ve won through the years. Count that s#!t, b!^%h! Yeah!

Larson: Wow, you’re a nasty drunk too. Simmer down or I’ll smack you down, punk…Hmmm, not sure how many career records, but I think I could honestly say it’s in the 30-40 range. As far as titles go, if we count Outdoor Nationals in there as well, each race is a title for Outdoor.

FirstLoser: I can’t feel my face…what did you say? You’ve earned a title for each race and distance? Dayum…(glug, glug, glug)

Larson: Drink till ya stink, son! I can say, on a real good guess without archiving all of them, I’m close to the 50 range for Indoor and Outdoor, Inlines and Quads.

He'll be doing movies next, and taking all those awards too.

He’ll be doing movies next, and taking all those awards too.

FirstLoser: *hic* What about skateboard and scooter? Flying Turtle?

Larson: Not yet, but I’m working on it. (BAMN! Smacks me upside the head with an Iron City empty.) Sober up.

FirstLoser: OK. Have you ever skated on the world team?

Larson: Nope. I never had the opportunity to try out for the World Team back in the day, but looking back I wish I knew then what I know now. Just a dream, but I believe it would have been interesting.

FirstLoser: OK, so, of everyone you’ve skated against, who stands out as the toughest competition you’ve ever faced?

Larson: Well I do have a couple people I have battled against over the years on Quads and Inlines. You’re not on that list, but on Quads, I could mention Dante Muse all day long. Simply put, he’s a Technician skater. On Inlines, Jay Ingram and I had our battles, along with heated races with Russell Parmely. Both guys are great competitors and OMG, hella fast! My hat’s off to them and their great careers as well!

With longtime friend and team-mate Jon Elloitt.

With longtime friend and team-mate Jon Elloitt.

FirstLoser: One more question, before I pass-out…How the hell do you do it, man? (Starting the drunken cry)

Larson: I do all of this on pure high self esteem, integrity, motivation, drive, success, and positive mental preparation.

FirstLoser: No, no, HOW do you do it, man?

Larson: My secret? Hard work bro. I pay my dues. We practice Indoor 4 days a week. During specific times of the year, we’re on double sessions, plus, weather permitting, outdoor as well. I’m in the gym 4-5 days a week, doing total cardio, weight training, core training, cycling, you name it. On the average, I spend 2 hours a day. It doesn’t hurt that I work at a gym as well, so I really take advantage of that! I really eat very well too. I’m not big on fast-food, candy, an overabundance of soda, but I do have an occasional Diet Pepsi. When I’m in-season training, I’ll slam a protein shake diet.

FirstLoser: Do you sleep well? Does that play into it?

Larson: I never had irregular sleep patterns, and my wife (speed skater Denise Larson) gets mad when I fall asleep before her and leave the TV on!

At this point, the room is spinning, I’m bleeding from the bottle to the head, and decide to call it a night. I’ve got more, very specific questions designed to really get in his head, but I need to be sober to get them straight. So stay tuned, there’s a lot more where this came from…

For all you brothers and mothers

Like Sylvester Stallone’s 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever, I’m Staying Alive. After a shockingly poor attempt at a blogging comeback earlier in the year, I’ve dusted myself off and I’m ready to try it again. Looking to pick things up where I left them off, my goal is to give the inline community reason to keep coming back with quality, in-depth, thoughtful and well-reasoned inline commentary, not embarrassing, unnecessary, uninspired and self-indulgent rants. Oh wait…that’s what I’m known for. So it goes…

You can try to understand, but really, why?

You can try to understand, but really, why?

Making my way back to the indoor, 100m oval, has been…interesting. I’m not the skater I used to be, and I’m about as far forward in the pace line as I ever was. Having gotten over the idea that I was once one of “the fastest” in my group, I’m satisfied at being counted among one of “the faster” these days in the pace line hierarchy of fast-to-fastest. I’m focusing on my form and trying to catch my breath. I’m sure none of you can relate.

In addition to my forgetting just how different indoor is, what’s happened while I was away is that the line’s gotten faster, from front to back. Those that have been faithfully suiting up and showing up have moved on up in the pecking order. The line’s gotten thicker in the middle – in a good way, not like I have. But the back of the pack has grown a longer, faster tail too. There’s new, old blood that’s been showing up, creating an air of excitement and higher expectations.

Ummm, OK. What THE HELL was that?

Ummm, OK. What THE HELL was that?


Yeah, that pic is blurry, and for good reason. Check out the color scheme in that suit. Look familiar? Look like the colors of domination, and long standing outdoor records? Anyone who recognizes the colors in that skin suit knows that whoever may be wearing it would be someone to be reckoned with. This one in particular is none other than four-time Olympian KC Boutiette.
Don't call it a comeback, call it a reconnection.

The Skin Suit of the Age of Greatness.


Having been the first inline speed skater to make their way to ice, the man is a legend among us mortals. Well, a legend shoulder to shoulder with the other legend we get to skate with, two-time Olympian Jondon Trevena. Jondon went to ice right after KC, and as the story goes, many others have followed them both. KC and Jondon paved the way for what Joey Mantia is doing today, and have a long history together. Getting to be a part of a group with them, sharing the floor with them and learning from them is, for me, inspirational and an honor. And for a guy like me, who’s been looking for the inspiration to get out there again myself, to give it my all and do my best, it couldn’t be happening at a better time, ’cause you know, it’s all about me…
From left to right Dude 1, Jondon, Dude 3, KC

From Left to right Dude 1, Jondon, Dude 3, KC


Both of these men love skating. And the thing is, they’re both at very different places with how they’re approaching it these days. But no matter how long they’ve been doing it or how high they’ve soared, they’re here among the terrestrials, giving it all they’ve got, and smiling every stride of the way. They’ve reminded me that it’s a relationship we have with this thing we do, each to the depth of our own commitment. My skating means just as much to me as theirs does to them. It’s our relationship to do with as we will, as we must and as we can with the lives we live today. If you want to skate with Jondon, come on out to Rollerland any given Sunday morning. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, how many World or NSC races you’ve skated, who you skate for, what configuration or how many wheels you have on each foot, he’ll gladly share the floor with you, and tell you what he can to help you get more out of this. And if you want to skate with KC, come on out, but know this, he’s here, working. He’s not pleasure cruising. He’s testing equipment, wearing weight vests, skating extra laps and nailing his form. He’s friendly and all that, but he’s got his game face on too, so be prepared to get over when he comes screaming by. And if you don’t want to come to Fort Collins in the winter, just wait a few months…he may just be on his way back out there to skate with you.

Yes, I was looking for inspiration, and I found it. These guys, just being around them, inspire you to seek the next level. And now our group has a World Team member too, with the Fast Kid having graduated to the World Class Kid while I was away. It’s a rink full of top talent, that’s fo sho’.

KC, The World Class Kid, Jondon

KC, The World Class Kid, Jondon


Yep, I’m in the right place at the right time. I feel the city shakin’ and everybody breakin’ and I’m stayin’ alive. Now I just need more chest hair, a wider, whiter smile, bigger hair and some medallions to go with. Look out world, here I come.

Shorts…

Plan on winning and the rest will come.

That said, do you really know how to plan?