Speedskater Tucker Fredricks poses for a portrait during the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee promotional shoot on May 13, 2009 at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles, Calif.
No American long track speedskater has skated 500 meters faster than Tucker Fredricks. Yet at the past two Olympic Winter Games, the Wisconsin native finished out of the top 10. Since Vancouver, he's had time to analyze his errors, marry two-time Japanese Olympian Eriko Seo, and listen to his mentor Dan Jansen with hopes of finishing strong in Sochi. In a phone interview from his home in Salt Lake City, the 29-year-old sprinter said 2014 would mark his final Games. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Let’s start with your Vancouver Olympic experience. What was your approach and expectation?
Going into Vancouver, I was on the podium every weekend at world cups. I definitely thought I was going to be on the [Olympic] podium so I was devastated with a 12th place finish. The biggest problem — though I didn’t want to admit it at the time — was the Zamboni breaking down before the first race. There was an hour to an hour-and-a-half delay, which I wasn’t prepared for. I was prepared for a person falling — like a 10- to 15-minute delay — and I’m the type that if you tell me to go at this time, I’m ready to go at that time. I know it’s a horrible excuse and I don’t want to use it as one. But the more I look back, I wasn’t as loose as I should have been or could have been. I also made a mistake in the first race that put me out of it.
What was the mistake in the first race?
The biggest mistake was coming out of the first turn. I was paired with [Ronald Mulder of the Netherlands] and I thought my start was a lot faster than his. But it turns out that he had a pretty good start that day. It kind of threw me off to see him go by me in the first corner, so I tried hard to get more speed because I didn’t know what was going on. In the first corner, my left skate ‘booted out’ and I slipped coming out of the turn. I had to save it. Then, my entry going into the last corner got really long. I missed a couple of steps and took way too much time.
Do you count the number of steps when you race?
No, I go off a rhythm. Going into the last turn, I was between strokes so I didn’t know if I was going to take two strokes or four strokes. I ended up doing two and I probably should have done four. Those two things put me pretty far back.
How much time do you think it cost you?
Those two mistakes probably cost me two tenths. Two tenths probably would have put me into fourth place after the first race [instead of 15th. It’s true. Fredricks would have been fourth, right behind his friend Joji Kato who ultimately captured the bronze medal for Japan.]
Were you happier with your second race in Vancouver? (The times from the two races are added and the skater with the fastest combined time wins.)
It was a little better, but nothing that I was happy about. I was still heartbroken from the first race.
You’ve also said that Torino was a disappointment. How did the disappointment of placing 25th in 2006 compare to placing 12th in Vancouver?
It was completely different. In Torino, I wasn’t nearly prepared. I just kind of played around and was lucky enough to make an Olympic team. I didn’t focus on skating like I do now. In Vancouver, I’d put my heart and soul into those past four years. The focus was there. The training was there. Everything was about skating. After Torino, I realized what I had to do. After Vancouver, I realized what I missed out on. Vancouver was a ‘what if’ kind of thing.
How are you approaching Sochi, given what you’ve learned from your past Olympics?
To be honest, going into this season, I didn’t believe one bit that I could win an Olympic medal in 2014. I didn’t even know if I was going to skate this year because my back was in question. So my first step this year is to stay healthy and be in really good shape. Right now, things are going really well. Training is going awesome. I think I’m either the strongest I’ve been or in the best shape I’ve been in. If not, then really close. So now I’m starting to get confidence. I believe now I can beat everyone. I’m trying to stay away from thinking about medals. I’m focused on skating well.
What else is new since Vancouver? Did you marry Eriko, your fiancée?
I did. We got a marriage certificate at city hall in her hometown of Obihiro, Japan, May 1, 2010. I flew home alone because she had to wait for her green card. Then last year, in 2012, we had a wedding party in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Did any Olympians go to the party?
A bunch of them. Let me see; I’ve got a picture. Travis Jayner (2010 bronze medalist), Casey FitzRandolph (2002 gold medalist), Joey Cheek (2006 gold medalist), Nick Pearson, and a couple of others. Eriko was also in two Olympics, in 2002 and 2006 [in the 3,000-meter event]. She retired from skating two years after Torino.
In August, you went to Dan Jansen’s house for a week. How did that come about?
The year after Vancouver, he was at the world single distance championships and invited me to his house [in North Carolina] to do some training and golfing. So I went. This is my fourth year going out there. He puts me through old-school training regimens. He likes me to run stairs and do hill sprints. We still do those things today — but I just imagine it’s what he was doing when he was training. Or we go out on the boat, go golfing or just hang out. It’s a lot of fun.
Does he invite other U.S. skaters to his house, or just you?
I guess just me. I don’t know why. I still haven’t asked him. I don’t know if he’s done it in the past. It surprised me. But it’s cool to have somebody like him. Also, I think it’s fun for him because I think he misses [competitive skating]. Last time I went [to his place], he said, ‘I gotta come back. What time do you think I need to skate to make the team? Oh, I can do that! I can do it!’
He’s 48. What’s the prime age for an elite 500-meter skater?
I don’t know. Kids are so fast now. The times aren’t getting that much faster — it’s just the amount of people that can do those times. Back when [I was] younger, I could make a mistake and still be third. Now we [veterans] make a mistake and we’re 14th.
You hold the American record at 500 meters, but you set it in November 2007. Why do you think your time (34.31 seconds) has held up for so long?
I have no idea. I was actually talking about this with Joji Kato who set the Japanese national record in 2005 [in 34.30 seconds, also a world record at the time]. We were wondering: why can’t we set more personal records? We are faster now. At least we’re more consistently faster.
You’ve specialized in 500 meters. Have you ever considered racing 1,000 meters regularly?
It’s been hard for me to figure out how to race it so I’ve just stuck with the 500. I’ve never really cared enough about it to get good at it. It’s completely different — at least for me. I do them in training, and if I make world sprints [championships], then I’d obviously have to do two of them there. A couple years ago was my best chance to place high, but then I injured my back [and withdrew]. It was the 2011-12 season.
What happened to your back in 2012 and how is it now?
I got stuck in rut in a practice race, crashed, and jammed my hip. I skated the Salt Lake City World Cup and thought maybe it’ll calm down, but it got worse. The next day we flew to Calgary for the world sprint championships and my back went out. I had to take a month off. Pushing out on the left leg was very painful. I was able to finish the season, but not exactly how I wanted.
Last season, it wasn’t fully healed. It was hard for me to put 100 percent into training knowing that it could go out at any time, so I was in horrible shape last year. Now it’s okay. I know how to take care of it, even if it doesn’t hurt bad. I just have to remember it’s there. I’m not young anymore.
You made your world cup debut at 18. What keeps you in the sport 11 years later?
Olympic glory. My dream is to win an Olympic medal. I’ve got to watch out for that because I don’t want it to be a distraction — but that is the main reason I’m still skating.
Do you think Sochi will be your last Olympics?
Ninety-nine percent [I’m sure] that’ll be my last Olympics. Unless I’m getting paid a million dollars a year, I’ll be done. Well, okay, even if I was getting paid $200,000. I would love to continue but I’ve got to start getting into the real world.
What kind of career do you foresee after you retire?
Coaching! I would love to see if I could make people better at speedskating. There’s no way I could be as good as [head coach of the national sprint team] Ryan [Shimabukuro], but it would be fun to try. Either I could make them really fast or I could make them quit before they wanted to. Haha! It would be really fun.
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.