BY PAUL D. BOWKER I JAN. 01, 2013
Olympic speedskater Heather Richardson heads into 2013 on a very fast track.
The 2010 Olympian closed out the 2012 year by setting three national records in three days, including one in the 1,000-meter event that had stood for 10 years.
Starting Dec. 28 on the Utah Olympic Oval ice in Kearns, Utah, Richardson won the 500 and set a U.S. record at 37.34 seconds, clocking the fastest time in the world this season. The next day, she won the 1000 in 1:13.52, beating a decade-old record set by Richardson’s childhood hero, Olympian Chris Witty, of 1:13.83 back in February 2002.
Then she finished her trifecta by winning the 1500 at 1:53.84, besting a time of 1:54.19 set by another Olympian, Jennifer Rodriguez, on Dec. 12, 2009.
Earlier this season, she swept all five races at the fall national championships in Milwaukee, and she won the national sprint title in Utah. She also struck World Cup gold this season in the 1000 in Nagano, Japan, and Heerenveen, Netherlands. Her performance this past weekend qualified her for the Essent ISU Long Track World Sprint Speedskating Championships Jan. 26-27, also in Kearns.
“It's just a confidence wave,” Richardson, 23, said. “My first one carried into the 1000, and after the 1000, I said to myself I only have one more race to go so today I was just really working on my technique and I think when you don't worry about that stuff it just happens.”
Impressive stuff, especially considering this: Six years ago Richardson was just learning to skate on ice following nine years of inline skating.
A native of High Point, N.C., a place known for its furniture stores but has no ice skating facilities, Richardson followed in her parents’ footsteps and became an inline skater at an early age. You could find her at the Rol-A-Rink Skate Center on Main Street in High Point virtually any night. She joined an inline speed team at age 9. She won racing titles on the national and world levels. But ice? That didn’t happen until after her high school graduation and the “what now” thoughts began to crawl into her mind.
“I was just sitting at home and not sure what I wanted to do,” Richardson said. “I sat at home for two weeks and finally, I’m like, ‘Mom, I have to do something. I really think this WhIP program out in Salt Lake City is a great opportunity.’”
WhIP refers to the Wheels on Ice Program, an inline-to-ice transition program led by Derek Parra in Salt Lake City. Parra had won gold and silver medals at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and he had also moved to ice speedskating after a number of achievements as an inline skater. He had won three national titles and two world titles in inline.
He would play a key role in the skating development of Richardson.
But first would come that huge decision by an 18-year-old who also had ambitions of going to dental school. Her mother, Pat, began researching this whole skating on ice thing.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do? You want to move to Salt Lake City?” Richardson recalled her mom asking her. “You’re not going to have me; you’re not going to have your dad there.’”
Richardson told her mom: “I think this is what I want to do.”
Soon, she packed her things and the family piled into a car for the 30-plus hour drive to Salt Lake City. Goodbyes were said and Richardson was on her own. Inline skates were replaced by ice speedskating skates. She joined the WhIP program six months after it had started.
“Everyone that was out here already knew what they were doing, how to do everything,” Richardson said. “I’m the beginner, shaking on my legs and not sure. It was a hard time for me.”
At first the transition was hard, especially having to be more than 2,000 miles from home in Salt Lake City.
“After the first two weeks, I’m crying, ready to come home,” Richardson recalled. “I’m not sure if I can handle it.”
Being trained how to turn corners on the ice proved particularly frustrating for Richardson. And that’s where the coaching of Parra came in.
“I wasn’t sure if I’m ever going to get this down,” Richardson said. “Derek’s like, ‘Try one more time, try one more time.’ It just pushed me over the edge. I started crying. And I think that’s where we really bonded. He really started to help me more after practices. That’s when I just started to pick it up.”
Yet in three short years, she made the U.S. Olympic Team and competed in three events in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She placed sixth in the women’s 500-meter race, ninth in the 1,000 and 16th in the 1,500. She marched in the Opening Ceremony and loved every minute of it.
“The Opening Ceremony, I think it’s a big part of the Olympics,” she said. “I mean, you’re going in to represent your country. You want to walk for your country. I know a lot of the people, a lot of the guys in speedskating had not walked because they raced the next day. But the girls had the day off. So we decided to actually just walk. I think it’s one of the best experiences that is there.”
Certainly, the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games are on Richardson’s horizon.
“I’m super excited. I’m looking forward to that,” she said.
Pat Richardson, who attended the Vancouver Games, is making plans for Sochi. She also plans to go to the Essent ISU Long Track World Sprint Championships in January. She spent Christmas with Heather in Utah before the national championships.
“I just hope that she succeeds on the ice,” Pat Richardson said, “and she finds love and then marriage and then maybe a baby.”
Heather still visits the Rol-A-Rink during her trips back home to High Point.
Richardson and many other U.S. speedskaters will get a taste of Sochi in March when the Essent ISU Long Track World Single Distance Championships are held there. The top 24 in each World Cup distance will qualify.
“I’m hoping to put my name out there so it’s at the top going into Sochi,” Richardson said, “then hopefully getting a good solid training summer in, going into an Olympic year. And hopefully I’m just as strong as this year, if not stronger.”
In 2011 and early 2012, she was slowed by injuries, first by damaged discs in her back and then by a broken collarbone. She recovered, leading to a busy offseason of training in summer 2012, which she credits for her strong 2012-13 season.
Consistency is the order of business now, especially from the first day of a competition to the second day. Ryan Shimabukuro, the U.S. Long Track Sprint Coach, talked with her about it after the Nagano World Cup.
“I think my body is just asleep on that second day,” she said.
Perhaps not anymore, as she showed at the recent national championships.
“It’s a good check point of where we’re at,” Shimabukuro said. “We still have a lot of work to do before the World Sprints, but I’m very satisfied and happy for her.”