SCAN0096

USA Roller Speed Skating Will Rise Again

Relay dream team

 

Why is the United   States not producing world inline speed skating champions Like they used to? This question is currently being thrown around all over social networks as if being born in our country makes us entitled to global victory. I would contend that although being born in the United States has many great advantages, for athletes in non traditional sports, it also has unique challenges. The answer to what we should aim for to have future speed skating success is much longer than I have patience to write but I feel like I at least owe my story to help facilitate discussions.

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When I first decided I was going to be a speed skater, the United States was only just beginning to compete for the podium at an international level. The ground work had been laid by the great athletes before (a few winning random medals) but it wasn’t until Tom Peterson came along that the USA had any strong male presence in the world competitions. Tommy became a master on the banked track (from his indoor racing and competitiveness) and he won a number of gold medals because he chose to be the tip of the spear. This was before we had any banked tracks in the US. It was Tommy overcoming all obstacles because he had a goal. Right as Tommy was winding down his career with track wins, Bobby Kaiser decided that winning on the track was not good enough for him (he wanted to break new barriers) and he started making a claim as the best road racer in the world. During his era, a few other USA gold medalists emerged like Dean Huffman and my great friend Donnie Van Patter. It was no accident that Dean, Bobby and Donnie all emerged around the same time. What Tommy was able to accomplish on the track as an indoor racer was not duplicatable on the roads. Instead of being able to rely on our cornering ability, the next era relied on our great fitness. Bobby, Donnie and Dean trained so hard that as a working team, they would attack individually, and non stop on the road races ….something the USA had never done before. In the end, they all found success by helping each other destroy the other countries legs.

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I had the pleasure of competing in my first US national team trials with the likes of all four of those great skaters as well as Rob Dunn, Chuck Jackson, Ken Sutton, Curt Labeda, Chris Snyder among others. I was destroyed (as was Dante) as we were way out classed and too young to know any better. I did get to see a level of commitment and seriousness that I did not know existed in roller sports. Like a Jr high quarterback getting the opportunity to go to an elite only QB camp with Tom Brady, I was able to live and breath the kind of life it took to achieve winning at the highest level. I knew long before I became a champion that I wanted to be one and I was willing to sacrifice like the others did in order to get there. Who would have guessed that three years later as I just turned 17 year old I would be representing our country along side two legends and heroes, Bobby and Donnie as well as my soon to be legend brother, Dante.

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My first World Championship was too good to be true as far as easing me into international racing. The team was made up of four men of which three get to race each race. Also unlike today, only one course per year was used and this would be a track racing year held for the first time in America. Every time I skated it would be with Bobby and Donnie and the same would be true for Dante whenever he took the track. Even though I had worked super hard at outdoor nationals, indoor nationals and team trials, and I had placed really high in all competitions; once we made the squad we would have no argument as to the order of seniority. We would work for Bobby first to win a gold medal and then we would work for Donnie. If they both got gold medals and races were still left to be raced, Dante and I might get a shot at Gold. No questions asked, no negotiating and I thought it was a really good deal.

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The first race was the 300 and the results were Italy, Italy and me….first race and I had a bronze already (this race set the course for my entire career as my goal from that moment was to some day be the fastest man in the world). Later that night was the 20k and Bobby and Donnie finished first and second…with me finishing third for a moment, until I was declassified after the race to forth. We fell short again in the 500 meter as the Italians took one and two over Dante and the others. Later that evening Donnie struck Gold in the 1500 meter and it looked like I might get a shot. Dante was up next in the 5k and he won his first of many 5k world titles with the help of Bobby and Donnie. Now I am at this surreal and amazing moment in my life.  My first world championship, one race left, a 10k and Bobby and Donnie the two best skaters in the world would be going to work for me get a world championship. [A fun side note to this, Bobby and Donnie have both decided that this would be their last world championship. Every gold medal they give away would have added to their long list of achievements but they both felt that the legacy they were handing down to the team was greater than an extra gold medal.] Bobby and Donnie worked like the champions they were and led me to victory….a victory that still stands to this day as the youngest world male champion in roller speed skating history.

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What lessons can we take from my first world championship?

 

I was exposed to greatness and what it took to be great when I was at an age that I would be able to digest what was going on and make decision based on that information.

 

The champions before me dedicated their lives to excellence and perfection. Any thing less and our next man in would have taken the spot successfully.

 

The team at an international level had a hierarchy and no negotiations or arguments carried any weight in changing that order.

 

Our mentors set the bar high with regards to teamwork and sacrificing. Helping a teammate win was regarded higher than winning a gold medal yourself.

 

We as athletes were responsible for what performance we put on the track. The coaches helped facilitate training and harmony but at that level they are given little time to coach us.

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Some of my personal thoughts on Blame or excuses:

 

It is not the coach’s job to train our athletes to compete at this level. Our coaches should be there to give advice, leadership, guidance and move any obstacles out of the athletes way in order for them to succeed. As a coach, I can give technical advice and strategy advice but by the time they get to me, the heavy lifting should have already been done.

 

The lack of banked tracks in our country is no excuse for our performances. In the old days, using the bank was necessary and tactical in order to succeed. Today with the coated tracks it is all about how much horse power the athletes have in the engine. If our skaters could learn to turn consistent fast laps on an indoor track then their legs can also learn to turn consistent fast laps on the coated tracks. I would have loved to been in my prime with the tracks they use today. The winners have no problem going to the front and holding pace in order to win…we should learn to do the same.

 

Because we live in an amazing country does not mean we are entitled to gold medals. These are the world championships. The winner is the best in the WORLD. The world is a big place. If you want to be the best in you state it should be a big deal. If you desire to be the best in your country, that is an awesome dream. To dare to think of being the best in the world at anything is radical and should be approached as such. If it was easy there would be a bunch of us. It takes sacrifice, discipline, focus, pain and a bit of selfishness. It is somewhat difficult to endure that kind of madness in a country that provides so many other opportunities.

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I love America and I love Skating.  I also love the athletes who dedicate their lives to our sport. Consider this, less than ten years before the era of dominance that our country had through the mid 80’s to the 2000’s, we were right where we are now.  We were a bunch of talented athletes trying to figure out how to put that talent to proper use. I am excited about the opportunities our future skaters have to forge a new identity. Any victory from now on will be a new legacy started by them.

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I look forward to seeing American grit and hard work persevering again in a new generation.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Amazing article. Thank you for sharing.

  • Spot on Tony, and not only true of the USA… it is worth noting for Australian skaters that the relay team in 2nd in your last photo is Steve Whyte, Neil Spooner & Tony Hanley. Every word you have written here is just as applicable to Australians.

  • Thank You Tony for your awesome insight! As always we need to hear from you guys and these athletes need to hear this.
    This year the coaching staff lead by Vicci King, Myself and Joe LeGault took a down to earth approach to rebuilding the TEAM USA we know and love. We dedicated our time to doing all we could to get them back on track. I think this year’s Worlds was an eye opener and the start of a new Era. All what you have said here is exactly what I as well as Vicci and Joe Have been preaching. If you want to be the best in the World, you have to put in the work. The excuse of not enough tracks or not enough of this or that is only an excuse. As you stated, long ago we were just where we are now. Trying to figure out how we are going to beat the other dominate countries, and guess what? We did then and we will now. I truly believe that we have started a new Era in USA ROLLERSPORTS and I hope that these new and young talented athletes will take all what you said to heart an dput forth the commitment and attitude to make themselves #1 again! Hope to see you around soon!

  • I also agree with all that has been said. I do want to add this if I could. I skated for many years when I was very young (70’s-80’s) and it was several years before I was ever told by the coach there was a National Championships and was chance to be a National Champion. I think my first knowledge of this was my first edition of the skating magazine you received with the amatuer card. I just think that not knowing that skating went further then a local meet was then and is now very depressing to me. Im sure that if rinks and coaches would use as a tool for promoting and exposure of roller speed skating’s legacy and history of our world class champions and the possibilities that the talented young skaters would see that they can take their love for skating to the top podium at worlds and one day the Olympics.

  • This was a great read Tony, our skaters today really need a history lesson in speed skating, thanks for putting the time into this. I know I wouldn’t of been at the level I achieved without our dedicated powerhouses of the past. I do believe USA can bring it again in the future, if they only knew how great we were, and then they can fight for our country’s legacy!

  • Its been awhile Tony. Great article. Miss the good ol’ days!

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