For a sport that looks so effortless, it's amazing how exhausted the athletes are at the end of each lap. Their skates skid along the ice, and they are constantly speeding counterclockwise and crouching lower to the freezing arena. The athletes sprint with feet sliding concurrently and arms behind their backs in defiance. Their coach constantly yells "Faster, faster!" as muscles ache and legs begin to buckle.
Welcome to the world of competitive speed skating. This grueling sport has been around since the 13th century and began as a form of transportation across icy waters. Since then, its popularity has increased and it has developed into an Olympic sport. Speed skating tests the stamina, strength and speed of the athletes who compete.
How does an athlete persevere through hours of training, repetitive movements and shear exhaustion, while braving the freezing cold and balancing on thin, precarious blades?
“Halfway through a time trial and you're legs would already have hit the wall," said Shaner LeBauer, a 16-year-old speed skater from Potomac, Md. LeBauer was a gold medalist at the U.S. National Short-Track Speed Skating Competition. "The only thing you can do at that point on is push through it which is very difficult because your legs are screaming at you.”
For Lexi Burkholder, 16, a speed skater who has represented the U.S. at international competitions, the sport has also taken its toll. Last year, she tore her quadriceps and is still recovering from knee surgery. Because of her injury, she went on a three-month hiatus from skating and was recovering for the next nine.
Dealing with the nerves that accompany competitions is another challenge athletes have to overcome.
“I used to always choke when I was nervous and I’ve learned to harness it to my advantage just recently,” said LeBauer. He realized that nervousness helps because “I don’t think about the pain as much. I don’t overthink the strategy as much. I think on my feet much better when I’m nervous.”
Burkholder’s advice is to “trust your training and focus on the things you can change at that moment. You can’t change how you’re trained at that point or make yourself stronger. You can’t think about the other people. Do what you’ve been training to do.”
Another unique challenge of speed skating is the position in which athletes compete, which LeBauer says is probably the most unnatural of all sports. Unlike the arched backs of figure skating, speed skaters bend down close to the ice to increase their aerodynamics.
Because they only skate counterclockwise, the strain on speed skaters’ bodies often become unbalanced. “We're very unevenly built people, as far as strength and which muscles are stronger in each leg,” Burkholder said.
Though their bodies may be a little disproportionate in terms of strength and balance, skaters expect perfection from their equipment.
Although most ice rinks offer skate sharpening for figure and hockey skates, it’s rare to have them sharpen speed skates. They leave skaters to sharpen their own skates with personal tools called Sharpening Jigs. Rinks leave athletes to do this time-consuming task because each has his or her own preference of how the blades are sharpened.
LeBauer has had firsthand experience of the importance of equipment. Last year at Junior Championships, a bolt came loose from his left skate during the 500-meter race. Despite his impressive performance during the race, LeBauer’s equipment mishap proved disastrous in his overall results.
Though extremely picky with equipment, skaters aren’t always fastidious with their diets.
“I found that it doesn’t make as much of a difference as you might think,” LeBauer said. “It’s not about running out of energy, it’s about running out of available energy.”
For skating, although diet is not necessarily a sacrifice, many other things are.
“At this point the biggest sacrifice I’ve made is having to travel to D.C.,” said Burkholder, “Because I’m actually from Pittsburgh, so doing [online school], I had to give up a little bit of the educational aspect of my life.”
After her speed skating team in Pennsylvania dissolved, Burkholder had to uproot her life and make the transition to a new city and a new team.
In spite of the challenges, pain and struggles, nothing stops these two young skaters from dreaming big. Both plan to go to college, but LeBauer plans to go at 18 whereas Burkholder would put off going to college if she makes the Olympic team for 2014.
For these athletes, their aspirations keep them motivated through each brutal day of practice. “I just have my goals in mind,” Burkholder said, “and that’s what keeps me going.”
Tahmina Achekzai and Sonya Bessalel attended The Washington Post’s Young Journalists Development Program.