OCALA, Fla. — Renee Hildebrand was driving home through rural Florida last month when she got a text that read: “I am so sorry.”
“My heart sank,” Hildebrand recalled.
But a short time later, Hildebrand received another text from Brittany Bowe, another former pupil.
“Over my dead body is Erin not skating the 500 in the Olympics,” wrote Bowe, who had won the trial but gave up her spot to Jackson.
Hildebrand began to cry. All three of her athletes would make it to China.
The bond between a 59-year-old woman who can’t ice skate and three top U.S. speedskaters — Bowe, Jackson, and Joey Mantia — is one of the more unlikely stories of this Olympics. The three skaters’ winding path to Beijing began next to a Save-A-Lot, in an old roller rink with a plush toy machine and a Skee-Ball game and Icees for $3.50.
Most days, that’s where you can find Hildebrand, standing amid a gaggle of 7- to 14-year-olds, in front of a banner proclaiming, “We Do A Great Birthday Party!” The kids soften the march of their wheels, listening intently to the coach. One of them has commuted three hours for this lesson.
“Nasty Nay,” Hildenbrand’s roller derby handle from long ago, is now just “Nay.” She once dreamed of making it to the Olympics as a roller skater, and after those hopes faded, she learned to coach in-line while working as a physical therapist with the elderly.
Hildebrand figured out that inline skating offered a distinct advantage to speedskaters: namely, you can train for longer and the friction of the ground adds a dimension to leg strength. “We skate a lot against resistance,” she says. “We spend a whole lot more time in our skates than those on ice.” Once the rest of the skating world caught on, she suddenly had kids traveling from bustling Europe to sleepy Florida. She never trained anyone on ice because she didn’t need to. Students who wanted to transition to the cold floor already had a foundation.
Hildebrand first spotted Bowe at a roller rink birthday party 25 years ago and approached her parents because the eight-year-old Bowe was so fearless. Bowe’s mother, Debbie, remembers thinking: “We don’t even know what speedskating is.”
Jackson’s story is even less likely. Hildebrand met her mom in a Waffle House in 2002, when Erin was 10 and liked to tool around on the four-wheeled quad skates you’d imagine on the feet of 1950s waitresses at drive-ins. Jackson was not born to be an athlete: her dad built firetrucks and her mom worked at a pharmacy. But in 2016, she took to the ice for the first time, posting a video of her uncertain self amid audible giggles. Less than three years later, she was among the best speedskaters on the planet, the first Black American woman named to an Olympic long track team
Bowe, 33, is already a bronze medalist from 2018, and this will be her third Olympics. Mantia, 35, has 28 world Championship titles. They are all at the top of the sport in their discipline — Jackson in the 500 meters, Bowe in the 1,000, and Mantia in the 1,500. They all proudly hail from “Slowcala.”
“They always go back to their roots and talk about Ocala,” Hildebrand says. “It’s really neat to see the camaraderie.”
Mantia and Bowe moved to Utah to train 12 years ago. Jackson stayed here before hitting it big. Their 2018 Games yielded one medal, a team bronze for Bowe, yet the four of them stayed close through injuries and the loss of loved ones.
“Joey says he finally feels like he gets it,” Hildebrand says. “His confidence going into this Olympics is 10 times what it was for the last time.”
Despite the success, it’s still impossible to tell this is a speedskating mecca from the hay bales and barbecue joints and the F-150s caked in mud. There’s not even an actual facility for what Hildebrand does. Students must arrive at Skate Away South before the rink opens on Saturdays to rowdy kids and awkward teens at 1 p.m. She then moves the group to a place called Brick City Adventure Park.
She hasn’t skated on an ice rink in 20 years — “I’m a Florida girl. I want nothing to do with ice.” — and she has never been an official Team USA coach. She did go to the 2018 Olympics, paying her own way to sit in the stands. She’ll watch these Beijing Olympics on television, like most Americans.
And on Saturday mornings, while parents set up cake and party favors several feet away, she’ll be coaching, with perhaps a future Olympian in her charge.
“Birthday parties,” she laughed. “That’s where you gotta recruit from.”
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