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Watch Dem Speedskaters Whip ... From Wheels To Ice

By Karen Price | Nov. 19, 2015, 4:40 p.m. (ET)

Heather (Richardson) Bergsma is among the speedskaters that have made the transition from inline skating to the ice.  

Heather (Richardson) Bergsma recalls little about her first race on ice, but she remembers well her transition from inline skating.

She was 18 years old, an elite inline racer not long out of high school, and her Olympic dream led her to Utah to start over on ice. She remembers thinking it would be just like inline, and then realizing quickly that it was not.

“Two weeks in I was already ready to go home,” she said. “My coach at the time said I was like Bambi on ice.”

She stayed, and has represented the United States in long track speedskating in each of the last two Olympic Winter Games. Today, half the fall U.S. world cup long-track team got its start on inline skates, including Bergsma and 45-year-old KC Boutiette, who was the first to make the transition from wheels to Olympic ice back in the mid-1990s. 

It’s a trend that U.S. long-track program director Nick Pearson sees continuing, and in fact believes could be critical to the health of both disciplines.

“I think the opportunity for both sides, ice and inline, to partner is huge,” he said. “I think we were one of the first countries with athletes like KC and Jennifer Rodriguez and Derek Parra back in the 90s to transition over to ice from inline. I think we failed to capitalize on that and try to convince more athletes to do the same. I think now the message being sent is that those athletes can come to ice and continue skating inline in the offseason, because they do have opposite seasons. I think the opportunity for both ice and inline could be huge to grow the memberships for both sides.”

KC Boutiette's success in making the transition from inline to ice speedskating laid the path for many after him to do the same.

Boutiette wasn’t thinking back in 1993 about making a breakthrough or opening doors for other inline skaters to compete for the United States on ice. He just wanted to be a better inline skater, and after seeing a cartoon rendering of Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center in a speedskating magazine, he was eager to check out the rink.

“When I made the (U.S. team that would go to the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games) I just thought, ‘OK, that’s great. We’ll see where my future ends up,’” he said. “I still skated for Rollerblade for another four years doing inline races. I didn’t really think I was going to be an ice skater but, yeah, it ended up being that way.”

Not everyone received him well. Boutiette remembers arriving in Milwaukee and introducing himself to one particular coach only to be told — without the coach so much as slowing his stride — that there were other clubs but his was full.

Boutiette’s success was nearly instantaneous, though, and over the next two years, several of his Rollerblade teammates joined him on the ice. Boutiette went on to represent the United States in three more Winter Games after Lillehammer. 

By the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, 14 of the 25 long- and short-track U.S. speedskaters came from an inline background, including all four members of the 2007 Pan American Games roller team that took home three gold medals.

This past weekend at the world cup event in Calgary, Bergsma set a world record in the 1,000-meter and fellow inliner Brittany Bowe set a world record and broke the longest standing women’s long-track record in the 1,500-meter. It was the second time in history that two U.S. women set world records in two distances in the same weekend.

Both women also spent time on wheels in the offseason, with Bowe winning a number of gold medals in the United States and abroad. Other members of the long track team who started on wheels include Joey Mantia, who took home bronze in the men’s 1,500-meter in Calgary, as well as four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, Jonathan Garcia, Kelly Gunther and Paige Schwartzburg. The top long-track skaters will be back in action at this weekend’s world cup event in Salt Lake City.

Several members of the short track team also owe their starts to inline as well, including Jessica Smith-Kooreman, Kimi Goetz and Keith Carroll Jr. 

What makes a successful transition from inline to ice is, unfortunately, quite random, Pearson said. While there are many examples of those who’ve done it, there are others who have struggled and ultimately failed, although patience and hard work are two things that certainly help one’s chances.

The United States once had a program to help athletes make the switch, called WhIP, for Wheels on Ice Program. Bergsma is one such skater for whom the program was beneficial, but it is no longer in existence. Pearson said there was a perception in the past that the ice program was poaching inline’s best athletes, but he’d love to see a joint venture between the two emerge to help skaters move between disciplines. Internationally, the popularity of both inline and ice speedskating is thriving, he said, but in the United States the numbers are shrinking.

“That’s why I hope the two organizations can work together and come up with a plan that’s not just about sharing athletes but realizing there should be a lot more crossover and that it could help us both,” Pearson said. “There’s a lot of talent out there and a lot of talent identification that could be done to get more athletes into both sports.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Heather Bergsma

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