Milwaukee-trained speed skaters take to Olympic ice

MILWAUKEE - The long and short track speed skating events are headlining this week at the Olympics and all of the long track skaters have left a skate-print in Milwaukee. 

All of the long track speed skaters qualified for Team USA at the Pettit National Ice Center in January. 

"Everybody here is really, really looking forward to seeing the athletes that came and participated in trials," Carolyn Spiewak, Director of speed skating at the Pettit National Ice Center said. "It makes it a little more of a personal experience as a viewer and as someone who works here in the facility."

For the standard viewer, watching speed skating is a very basic sport. Those who go the fastest are the winners. However, Spiewak, a speed skater herself, watches the intricacies of the sport. In short races, she breaks down how they start. 

"The start in the shorter distances like the 500 and the 1,000, the opener can be everything," Spiewak said. "You want to have as much power and explosiveness as possible."

However, her favorite races to watch are the longer ones. She enjoys breaking down the technique of the skaters over the course of several laps. After years of speed skating herself, she sees where her faults are the strengths of other skaters. 

"Building out my corners, increasing acceleration out of the turns is my weakness," Spiewak said. "I have an even tempo."

Spiewak teaches people how to speed skate at the Pettit National Ice Center. The facility has a large long track around the outside with two smaller hockey style rinks on the inside. However, the differences between skating in hockey and speed skating go deeper than just the physical appearance of the skate itself. 

"The overall position for speed skating is different than figure or hockey," Spiewak said. "You're squatting down in a really crouched position. Your back is over and rounded. You're engaging your core muscles to get the most amount of power and pressure on the ice."

It pays off too. The best skaters top out near 40 mph. A big reason, aside from technique, is the science of the skate. The blade is much thinner than on a hockey skate and the boot itself is more firm and sturdy.

Hockey skates are meant for starting, stopping and accelerating in another direction as quickly as possible. Speed skates are meant to go in one direction and turn left. 

Plus, that long blade allows more contact with the ice to propel the skaters at top speeds.

"It's meant to give you a longer push and extension on the ice," Spiewak said. "In terms of transferring power and pressure down, it makes more sense."

For the layman, Maverick and Goose put it best in Top Gun. These skaters have the need for speed. 

"I really like going fast," Pedersen said, 

Anton Pedersen sounds more like Ricky Bobby than a speed skating master but he is more the latter. He's been skating since he was five years old. But he skates in a smaller circle on the short track, made famous by another Anton. 

Apolo Anton Ohno put short track skating on the map in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. It was different than the long track skating viewers were accustomed to. In long track, it's more about technique and beating times than it is a race. 

While speed is still important in short track, it can be more of a strategic game, with skaters jostling for position along the way. 

"You have the racing component," Pedersen said. "You have to know how to set up passes and when is the right time to block someone from passing. Long track is a lot more speed based. The fastest guy at the end of the day will win."

That's not to say short track lacks the speed in speed skating. The shorter distance makes for more intense turning and the five racers can bunch up and make for some intense finishes.

"There is a lot more strategy and head games that go into short track," Jori Kola said. "It's more exhilarating in short track and leaning and doing stuff we do. It's such a unique sport and it's really fun."

"I like the rush of going around the corner," Lena Swirczek said. "If you're in a race, you have to think what other people are doing and that you can sometimes win even if you're not the best. [Like] if you're smarter than other people and block them."

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