If someone had told KC Boutiette in 1994, the year he competed in his first Olympics, that he’d be on the speedskating world cup team in 2015 at age 44, “I probably would have laughed,” he said.
After Boutiette qualified for the eight-man team in early January, co-workers suggested he line up Metamucil and AARP as sponsors upon his return from the U.S. Long Track Championships in Milwaukee.
That did make Boutiette laugh.
The four-time Olympian will compete in Hamar, Norway, this weekend in his first world cup since 2006.
“It’s all an experiment,” said Boutiette. “Back in the day, I could go out and I knew how hard I could go.”
“My body’s still a little bit in shock when my heart rate gets up that high,” he said.
Previously known for his dyed blond hair, body piercings and tattoos, Boutiette is now a family man and business owner, a “modern day cobbler” who makes custom cycling shoes. His hair is dark and he needs glasses to see his stitching.
Credit a new event for giving this old skater a new lease on competitive life.
“It’s all about the mass start for me,” said Boutiette, whose best Olympic finishes were fifth in the 1,500-meter in 1998 and fifth in the 5,000-meter in 2002. “That’s the one reason I came back to skating.”
The mass start first appeared on the world cup circuit in 2011-12 and will be part of the 2015 World Championships. The International Skating Union, the sport’s governing body, has proposed adding the race to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, subject to the approval of the International Olympic Committee.
Unlike other individual races which go off in pairs, the mass start includes up to 28 skaters in pack-style racing similar to a cycling road race with drafting and breakaways.
“It’s much more exhilarating to see,” Boutiette said of the 16-lap event. “At the finish of a race — boom! — you know who won right then and there rather than watching pairs skate 10,000 meters and seeing who wins the race two hours later. It’s kind of where the sport’s headed. With my skill set from my previous experience in racing marathons (100-lap pack races) many years in Holland, it’s going to be my best bet.”
If Boutiette, who turns 45 in April, makes the 2018 Olympic Team, he would be the oldest Olympic speedskater since Albert Tebbit of Great Britain competed in the first Winter Games in 1924 at age 52. The oldest speedskating medalist is 38-year-old Julius Skutnabb of Finland in 1928.
“The main thing is that there’s not a whole lot of depth in our distance skaters right now,” Boutiette said. “I can’t really explain why, but hopefully we’ll get some people interested in it and back out there.”
In the meantime, he added, “I’m happy to fill in a spot.”
Thomas Cushman, the U.S. long track national allround head coach, said Boutiette could be a “great addition to the U.S. team” in the mass start.
“When you get a lot of people together, strategy really comes into play,” Cushman said. ”With his inlining background and his marathon racing background, he’s going to be one of the best strategists out there.”
|KC Boutiette relaxes after the 5,000-meter race at the World Speed Skating Championships in Nagano, Japan on Feb. 14, 1997.|
In Hamar, Boutiette will race the 1,500 and 5,000 to try to quality for the World Allround Championships later this season. He is not guaranteed a spot in the mass start because he is the No. 2 U.S. qualifier in the event behind Jeffrey Swider-Peltz.
“I’ve got to keep an open mind and go as hard as I can in each race and see where I land,” Boutiette said. “I think next year I should be able to go a lot faster because I’ll have a larger base underneath me with training and just having more miles in my legs.”
He’s used to taking on new challenges.
“A lot of people look at me as the pioneer that came over from inline skating,” said Boutiette, an inline veteran who had been on the ice only six weeks when he made the 1994 Olympic team. “It’s really nice to be known for that, because that’s what is going to stick with me for the rest of my life regardless of meet results or whatnot.”
Boutiette opened what he calls “the floodgates” for such skaters as Apolo Anton Ohno, Jennifer Rodriguez (Boutiette’s ex-wife), Chad Hedrick and current athletes Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe to make the transition to ice.
After his fourth straight Olympic Winter Games in 2006, Boutiette stepped back from the sport, moving to Miami to run a bike shop.
“There are no rinks,” Boutiette said. “Sometimes I would not train for two weeks because I was working so hard.”
He skated the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials mostly for fun, but also with aspirations of making the team pursuit squad.
“When you’re running a business, it’s pretty tough,” said Boutiette, who fell short of his fifth Olympic team.
Encouragement from an Olympic legend and a fellow athlete spurred him to keep trying.
In the summer of 2013, Boutiette, now married to wife Kristi and with a son, was visiting Eric Heiden, the five-time Olympic gold medalist from 1980. They were out in the garage, shooting the breeze about the sport.
“He just kind of said, ‘Well why don’t you skate trials?’” Boutiette said. “All of sudden, I start training a little bit more, not really saying I’m going to skate hard or anything like that.”
He went to the Utah Olympic Oval that fall, where his buddy Shane Dobbin, a New Zealand speedskater, told him mass start was proposed for the 2018 Olympic Games. Boutiette skated weekend time trials to qualify for the 2014 Olympic Trials — again just for fun — but he was soon ready to take the sport seriously again.
“I’m giving it one more year after this to see if my body can withstand the training, see if I can make the podium in the mass start,” he said.
Cushman believes that Boutiette’s motivation is ingrained.
“He’s just an athlete,” the coach said. “Whatever sport he’s in, whatever age he’s at, he just wants to be training. He wants to be in shape. It’s just who he is.
“Also, he’s a competitor. You put KC on the ice and you can never discount him. He likes to compete. He likes to race. When he’s on the ice, he wants to win.”
But Boutiette said he is realistic in his outlook.
“I know where my place is; I’m doing this for fun,” he said. “Everybody looks at me as a very experienced veteran, yet I don’t skate as fast as I used to. I don’t recover as I used to. It’s not the 15-years-ago KC Boutiette.”
Because he’s not as confident in his fitness, Boutiette said he’s not as aggressive as before.
“It’s a little different mentality that I have right now than I used to, that’s for sure,” he said. “I mean I want to do well, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not going to step on someone’s toes to get in front of them.
“I would say probably 50 percent of the guys out there would bump into you to get in front of you. I’ve never skated unfair and I’m not going to start now. I would never intentionally do something to try to beat somebody in a mass start race.”
Boutiette commutes to Utah for training a week at a time from his home in Erie, Colorado, where his company, Rocket7, is based.
“Everybody is pretty supportive of the old guy,” he said.
The coaches help him out technically, but understand that he knows his body best as far as the volume of training goes.
He’s eager to help younger skaters, though he admits, “Sometimes when I help people it shoots me in the foot by making people so good it bumps me down the ladder.”
As a sort of coach-on-ice, Boutiette skates behind other athletes, giving feedback, or tells them to follow him and try to copy exactly what he’s doing.
With the retirement of so many distance specialists, Cushman said, “There has been no carryover to the younger skaters who are starting to come onto the scene. KC Boutiette has so much experience and so much knowledge and I’m pleased that we finally have somebody back in the fold who can start to pass that on to the next generation.”
While Boutiette may sometimes feel his age, he doesn’t act it.
“I’m a 44-year-old 24-year-old,” Boutiette said. “I’m pretty outspoken. I say what’s on my mind and I like to have fun. Usually people, the older they get the less fun they have. They just kind of fall into a shell and they’re expected to act a certain way. Now I have my kid, and I can’t wait until he gets to the age where he knows when a joke is played on him, because I’m going to become more of a kid even.”
His 2 ½-year-old son is named Braam, the Dutch word for a burr that develops when skates are being sharpened.
One of Boutiette’s best friends had named his dog Braam.
“That’s the coolest name ever,” Boutiette said. “So I named my son after a dog and a burr on a speedskate.”
Boutiette and Kristi have another baby due in June. He said when he told his wife of his speedskating dreams, “She said, ‘I’ll support you in whatever you want to do.’ It’s really super awesome to have that backing.”
Yet Boutiette said he’s had a hard time recovering the “drive and the selfish attitude that you need if you’re a single 24-year-old kid with no responsibilities trying to become the best speedskater ever.
“But I do have a responsibility. I want to be there when my kid wakes up. I want to help my wife out, but she yells at me, ‘Get up and go train.’”
And so he goes, a 44-year-old speedskater with four Olympic Games in his past and perhaps one more in his future.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.