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Mills Out of Retirement, and On to Nagano

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 1998; Page D3

Even Nathaniel Mills's best dreams didn't turn out this well. Moments after competing in the 1,000 meters at the speedskating Olympic trials in Wisconsin last weekend, Mills found himself gliding around the ice, not quite believing what he knew was true: He had made his third Olympic team.

Validating his return to speedskating after a three-year retirement, Mills qualified for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, with ease. As he skated around the track, his disbelief turned into something more palpable: tears.

"I was shocked," Mills said by phone from Milwaukee. "I didn't believe it at first. It sunk in a couple of minutes after the finish. I was thinking, what I have just done I had worked so hard to do."

A part-time Washington resident who deferred an acceptance to Georgetown Law School to train for the Olympics, Mills un-retired early in 1997. He had been helping coach the Canadian national team in Calgary, so he wasn't far away from the ice. And he carried years of international experience: Mills, 27, competed in the 1,500 in both the 1992 and 1994 Olympic Games, although he finished low in the standings in both.

"I accomplished the main thing," Mills said. "The whole rest of the year is gravy. I'm just going to relax, have fun, and try to keep improving. I have one goal, and that's to go and skate a good race. I want to skate my best 1,000 meters of the year at the Olympics. Whether that's a fifth place or a 25th place, I will be happy if I do that."

Mills turns 28 on Feb. 15 — the day he competes in Nagano.

"I guess I could skate myself a good birthday present," he said.

Mills, who grew up in suburban Chicago, isn't the only Olympian in his family. His sister Phoebe, now 25, won a bronze medal in gymnastics in the 1988 Games. His brother Lucas, 18, failed to qualify for the Olympic speedskating team.

Before the trials, Mills figured his chances of landing on the Olympic roster were high — he just didn't imagine it would happen when it did. The first three starting positions in the 1,000 were awarded Dec. 27. The fourth spot was claimed yesterday by Casey FitzRandolph, who also qualified for the 500 and 1,500.

In his qualifying race, Mills finished third behind Cory Carpenter and KC Boutiette. Although he didn't consider it a flawless performance, Mills felt substantially better than he did last March 15 after his first post-retirement race, in Calgary. He finished 11th in that competition, but recalls all but crawling to the finish line.

"I almost killed myself in that race," Mills said. "I wasn't in shape. My face was green afterward and I couldn't walk for an hour."

Because Mills spent last summer and fall whipping himself into skating shape at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, where he had been coaching, he believes he caught a few Americans off guard at the trials.

"No one knew what I was up to," Mills said. "Some people at the trials thought I was here as a coach. They didn't know I was competing. I think I surprised a lot of people."

Weightlifting, in-line skating and basketball kept Mills in decent shape during his semi-retirement. And unlike some other skaters in the U.S. national program, Mills adapted easily to the new clap skates, the movable blade devices that are also called slap skates and have revolutionized speedskating in the last year. Furthermore, he believes helping coach Canadian world record holders Catriona Le May Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon improved his own technique.

There were, however, times early last year when Mills second-guessed his return to speedskating.

"It was a major decision, what to do with my life — either to head to law school, skate or work," he said. "I just followed my intuition. ... Once I made my decision, I looked at some of my times early on and I was thinking: What the heck am I doing?"

After last weekend, Mills no longer has to ask that question. He now has his sights on a strong U.S. performance in the Winter Games as the team moves beyond the Bonnie Blair-Dan Jansen era.

"Every athlete goes to the Olympics hoping to win a medal," Mills said. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't dream of winning a medal, but realistically, I can't expect one. I would be gratified if another American won a medal and I contributed to that."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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