Not often does a gym class produce an Olympian. But not many gym teachers are Howard Ganong.
Ganong was a two-time Connecticut state speedskating champion in 1948 and 1949 who tried to make the 1952 Olympic Team. He came up short, was drafted in the Army, and when he returned from Germany, he started a family. Forty years later, he returned to skating and won five national age-group titles in short track, his last one in the spring of 2002 when he was 73.
At the tail end of his master’s career, his 8-year-old granddaughter Petra Acker was being homeschooled and needed to fulfill a physical education requirement, so Ganong found skates and took her to a hockey rink in Troy, New York, near her family’s home.
“She hung onto the sideboards for dear life,” Ganong said.
And when one of the regulars tried to show her some figure skating moves, Ganong intervened.
“Whoa, wait a minute! She’s not going to be a figure skater!” he said.
Instead, Ganong placed Acker at one end of the rink and timed her as she skibbled to the other end.
“She’d do it in 62 seconds, and say, ‘Opa! I can do it faster,’” he said. And she would.
“Opa! I can break 60.”
“And she’d do 59,” he said. “This went on for several weeks; she would knock a second or two off every time.”
They also had a ritual: at the end of each session, the two skaters — separated by a generation — would have an all-out sprint.
As expected, Ganong would blast past her. About a year later, she started to keep up. Then she started to pass him.
When that happened, “I would get some ribbing from the other skaters,” Ganong said, “but you could see that she had the desire.”
One day, Acker went home and proclaimed to her mother, Cindy: “I want to be the fastest skater in the world — faster than all the boys and girls.”
In late 2009, eight years after that initial P.E. session in the upstate hockey rink, Acker lined up at the 2010 U.S. Olympic qualifier in Milwaukee. At 16, she was the youngest competitor there.
“I got a [season] best in most of my distances that weekend,” she said. Acker also placed seventh in 3,000 meters.
It wasn’t enough to make the Olympic team, but success wasn’t far off.
In December 2010, as a high school senior, Acker won the women’s U.S. all-around championship and shared the headlines with two-time Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis who took the men’s crown.
In 2011, after completing high school, Acker — an only child — moved to Milwaukee to work with two-time Olympian Kip Carpenter. A few months later, during a bike ride with a teammate, she was struck by a car making a left-hand turn. While her teammate hit the side of the car, Acker flipped onto the windshield. She sustained a concussion and broke her collarbone. She also broke her left humerus (upper arm bone) in two places.
“I’ve had issues with the shoulder ever since,” Acker said. “It didn’t heal in the right place so I have a limited range of mobility overhead — but it doesn’t affect my crouch.”
She took two months off to recover, but “I wasn’t at my peak” the rest of the season,” she said. “It all turned around in December .”
That month, with her grandfather watching from the stands in Salt Lake City, Acker crushed her 3,000-meter PR at the U.S. Long Track Speedskating Championships, lowering her time to 4:13.94.
In doing so, she not only placed third in the U.S. all-around competition, but she made her first senior world cup team, for 2012-13.
“It was a really big deal,” she said.
It was also eye-opening.
“I felt really out of place and in over my head,” she said of her first year on the senior tour.
Compared to the junior circuit, the world cup “is way more serious,” she said. “Everyone is there to be a champion whereas at the junior worlds, there’s that, but everyone’s really new and excited to meet each other. It’s way more focused on the world cup.”
In February, Acker made her debut at the World Allround Championships in Hamar, Norway, and placed 22nd, right behind the other two Americans, Anna Ringsred and two-time Olympian Maria Lamb.
Since then, Acker’s PRs have continued to drop. In November alone, Acker lowered her 3,000-meter personal best twice more — by nearly five seconds — to hit 4:09:15.
In a few days, Acker will line up for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials once again, this time in Salt Lake City. Now 20, the New York native hopes to earn one of the two U.S. berths in 3,000 meters for Sochi.
Her grandfather never expected to attend the trials.
“Lung disease knocked me out,” he told TeamUSA.org in late October.
Three weeks later, Ganong passed away at age 85.
The last question in his final interview, however, was whether he thought Acker would make the Sochi team. Ultimately, Ganong was realistic.
“In the beginning of the year,” he said, “I gave her probably a 25 percent chance. At this point, I give her a 50 percent chance. She’s 20 years old competing against former Olympians and 26-, 27-, 28-year-old girls. One thing about speedskating is that you don’t reach your peak until 24 to 28.”
So whether Acker’s time is now or 2018 — or beyond — Ganong never doubted his little shadow on the ice would make it eventually.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.