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At 47, the Pied Piper of U.S. speedskating is making one last run at the Olympics

KC Boutiette is trying to make the U.S. Olympic speedskating team at age 47. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

PARK CITY, Utah — At 22 years old, KC Boutiette quit his job and made a vow. He had discovered, almost by accident, that he was good enough at speedskating to compete in the Winter Olympics. He promised himself he would pursue his athletic career for as long as possible, until his body failed him or the sport spit him out. It was a personal pledge formed from simple logic.

"You can always go back to school," Boutiette said. "You can always go to work. Money is always going to be there, one way or another. But you can only be an athlete once."

This week in Milwaukee, Boutiette is skating at the U.S. Olympic long-track trials for a chance to make the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. He is still an athlete despite a remarkable detail: Boutiette made the vow 25 years ago. He is now 47, racing against a field in which the median age is 23, trying to make his fifth Olympics and first since Turin in 2006.

Boutiette semiretired that year and started coaching and running a business making bike shoes. He maintained his fitness while he coached skaters and trained as a cyclist. He popped in and out of competition, racing in a downhill skating event at the 1998 X Games, contending at a 2009 Olympic qualifier and entering several time trials. The reintroduction to the Olympics of the mass start — an event last contested at the Games in 1932 and perfectly suited to his strengths — convinced Boutiette to make a run at his fifth Olympics.

Since he started training again in 2014, he has balanced the clamor of middle age, attracted glances from befuddled onlookers and built on an already towering legacy in the sport. When he rejoined the U.S. World Cup team, he received a bib with No. 70, to represent the year he was born.

"It's tough sometimes being the old dude," Boutiette said. "It's kind of fun to get the respect."

First in a wave

Even if Boutiette had not reemerged three years shy of his 50th birthday, he would have gotten respect. Though Boutiette has never won an Olympic medal, he holds a unique perch in the country's speedskating story. "He's a legend," said Tucker Fredricks, Boutiette's teammate in Turin and now his coach.

In his early 20s, Boutiette was an inline skater looking for somewhere to train after his season ended. He was curious to check out speedskating, and so in fall of 1993 he boarded a bus in Fort Collins, Colo. Twenty-four hours later, he arrived in Milwaukee.

"I didn't have any friends," Boutiette said. "No blades for my skates. Didn't know anybody."

At first, Boutiette attracted attention with his antics, punky behavior from the inline world. He would skate as fast as he could for 500 meters and slide to a stop, spraying powder. "No one does that," he said. He wore a hat with fake testicles hanging off the back, so the skaters he rudely passed would see them. When he asked a coach for help, she walked past him.

Soon, though, he received attention for his skating. In a week, he dropped three seconds off his time in the 500 meters. The same coach who had disregarded him asked whether he wanted a speedskating instructor. "Keep walking," he told her.

Six weeks after he first tried speedskating, Boutiette made the U.S. Olympic team for the 1994 Lillehammer Games. He also launched a movement within the sport.

Boutiette became a Pied Piper for inline skaters to cross over to ice. The switch gave inline skaters a chance at the recognition and sponsorship money available in an Olympic sport. In speedskating, athletes push and glide, short bursts of strength. Inline skaters constantly push, like runners. Coaches realized inline skaters brought better cardiovascular strength. Boutiette's conversion led to a talent infusion.

"These coaches for Team USA, it's almost like they've landed one Michael Jordan after another right in their lap," said Chad Hedrick, a Boutiette convert who won gold in the 5,000 meters in Turin.

And they still have Boutiette. He had always raced marathon events, and the addition of mass start to the Olympic program provide his skills a perfect platform. It allows him to use his tactical expertise and experience. His times have remained static over the years, better form making up for a lack of fitness.

When Boutiette told Fredricks he wanted to skate again, Fredricks was surprised at first. The more he thought about it, though, the less surprised he was — Boutiette still had the athletic ability, and his knowledge was unmatched. Still, his run at another Olympics is incredible to those in the sport.

"It's not a sport that's kind to older gentlemen," Fredricks said. "It's such a taxing sport. It's an awkward, unnatural position you need to be in. It takes a toll on the body. It's incredible what he's been able to do already."

"When I was 32, I was done," Hedrick said. "For me to look at KC at 47 and say, man, this guy is still doing it, it just blows me away."

Boutiette maintains his passion, Fredricks said, for a simple reason: "Having fun." Boutiette has always brought levity to his training, "the class clown," Hedrick said. If a 25-year-old skater teases him about his age, he will counter with an off-color joke about his mother's travel plans 25 years and nine months ago. As a younger skater, Boutiette would wait until a teammate was holding a cafeteria tray, then pull down his pants.

"I don't consider myself an old guy," Boutiette said. "When I'm around the kids, I act like a kid."

The comeback has not always been easy, the rigors of life ever-present away from the ice. When he started, Boutiette had a young son. Two years ago, his wife got pregnant. Already, Boutiette had to manage his cycling footwear business, Rocket7, and the typical demands of middle age. He owned two houses. He found himself worried about who would cut the grass if he was out training.

"Okay, we're done," Boutiette told his wife, Kristi. "The skating thing is over."

"No, keep going," Kristi replied. "We can't change our lives."

Hoping for the best

When their daughter was born with a confluence of special needs, it only increased the challenge. Boutiette juggled training with sleeping on hospital beds while his daughter had heart surgery and an operation to treat her inability to swallow. He adjusted his training schedule, using his experience to know when he could take it easy. He would show up to some sessions exhausted. Last summer, he considered scrapping the bid.

"I was like, I can't do this anymore," Boutiette said. "I don't want to do it anymore. The kitchen cabinets need to be painted. There's things that need to be done around the house. I'm not living the lifestyle I wanted. It was fun when I first started, and I'm still good at it. It was kind of a hard decision to keep going for me."

Boutiette credits Kristi — "having an awesome wife," he said — for not quitting. She reminded him how far he had come and how close PyeongChang was. Boutiette has kept going, and he has a real chance to make the team, maybe even medal. On Tuesday at the trials, he finished fourth in the 5,000. Last year, Boutiette won a silver in the mass start at a World Cup event, with a field that should be similar to the Olympics.

"I do want to move on," Boutiette said. "But I do want to make this Olympic team. Don't get me wrong."

And if he doesn't? He has sacrificed to put parts of his life on hold to make PyeongChang. He insists it will not burden him or add more pressure Sunday at the trials. "Dude, if I was afraid to fail, I would have never put my ice skates on," Boutiette said.

Sometimes, Boutiette said, somebody will see "this old dude" gliding around the ice while he trains and give him an odd look. What are you, the person will ask, a coach? No, he will tell them. He made a promise to himself a long time ago, and he kept it. He is, all these years later, an athlete.

A previous version of this article said that KC Boutiette made the 1994 Olympic team in six months and that Boutiette competed in the 2008 X Games.