Mitch Whitmore competes in the men's 500-meter at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships on Feb. 10, 2017 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Mitch Whitmore isn’t just racing the clock. He’s racing the calendar.
Whitmore, the best men’s 500-meter sprinter on the U.S. long track speedskating team, thought he broke his wrist when he flipped over the handlebars of his bike on a training ride last August in Montana.
It turned out his wrist wasn’t the problem.
“The trainers were like, ‘Oh, your tailbone’s probably bruised. You fell on it pretty hard,’” Whitmore said. “I had road rash and stuff, but didn’t think really anything of it. I finished the bike camp and then we got back and I’m like, ‘Wow. It really hurts to skate.’”
An MRI showed that Whitmore had broken his sacrum in five different places. Meaning “holy bone” in medieval Latin, the sacrum is a large wedge-shaped vertebra at the end of the spine and just above the coccyx (tailbone).
Considering the way speedskaters stay down in position on the ice and the explosiveness required at the start, a broken sacrum is particularly painful.
“You can’t do anything for it,” said Whitmore, who set the American record of 34.19 seconds two years ago. “It just had to heal on its own.”
He missed more than a month of training in the most critical part of the year.
“It’s tough because it’s Olympic season and you want everything to be perfect,” said Whitmore, who will race in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in Milwaukee Jan. 2-7 in a bid to make his third straight Olympic team.
“You know, everybody has their things they have to overcome, so I’m just trying to make the best of mine.”
His mentor can certainly relate. Gold medalist Dan Jansen, who has been working with Whitmore for about three years, persevered through heartbreak, bad luck, near misses and crushing disappointment to finally win the 1,000-meter at the Olympic Winter Games Lillehammer 1994.
He believes Whitmore, a fellow Wisconsin native, has enough time to get back up to speed for his next Olympic moment.
Whitmore placed 37th in Vancouver in 2010 and 27th in Sochi in 2014, and thought this was his year after finishing fourth in the 500 at the 2017 world championships.
“He still needs some power work, but now he’s able to do it,” Jansen said. “So, yeah, he’s got two months. He’s fine.”
The men’s 500 is one of the later speedskating events at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, taking place on Feb. 19.
Whitmore, who turned 28 on Dec. 18, was only 4 years old when Jansen prevailed in his fourth Winter Games, but he has seen the film.
“Plenty (of times),” Whitmore said. “I still get goosebumps watching it.”
He and Jansen had crossed paths over the years at events and clinics. After Sochi, Jansen offered to work with the promising skater “and he took me up on it.”
They mainly focus on Whitmore’s power and acceleration. Jansen critiques video that Whitmore sends from practices or competition, and Whitmore has trained at Jansen’s home in North Carolina.
“He’s definitely helped with getting more power into the ice,” Whitmore said. “He’s great for bouncing ideas off of technically, plus also the mental aspect. He’s been super supportive and helped me each weekend just think about the right things. It’s been an honor to have somebody like that in my corner and helping me out.”
Away from the ice, they hang out in the hot tub and played golf before Whitmore’s injury. “We did some stairs and it was cool to see he can still move pretty good,” Whitmore said.
Jansen said Whitmore is a good student. “He takes everything in, so he knows what he has to work on and he’s been working hard,” Jansen said. “I just wish this didn’t happen, but it did.”
They had just finished a long weekend of training in North Carolina when Whitmore left for the camp where he had the bike crash.
“Somebody in front of me stood up,” Whitmore said, “and I was looking down and I just ran into the back of him.”
He could do only limited training for six weeks while he recuperated. Once Whitmore’s sacrum was healed, he ramped back up, trying to make up for lost time. At first, Whitmore wore shorts instead of a speedsuit so he wouldn’t be tempted to go fast.
“I’d say there was no one day where it was awesome,” Whitmore said, “but each day it just progressively got better.”
He returned to competition for the world cup qualifier in October and made it to the world cup circuit. In his most recent 500s in Kearns, Utah, Whitmore placed eighth (34.38 seconds) and ninth (34.34), his fastest times of the season.
Jansen was in Kearns to see for himself how Whitmore was doing.
“What I saw today was awesome,” Jansen said after the first race. “He looked very good, better than I thought he would.”
In the men’s 500, most of the top skaters are bunched within three-tenths of a second of each other.
“There’s at least eight guys who can be on the podium on any day and he’s certainly one of them,” Jansen said. “I think it’s a good thing for him because he’s not seeing anybody who’s a half second ahead of him where you think, ‘There’s no way I can make that time up.’”
Whitmore was encouraged by how fast he skated the opening 100 meters in December in Calgary, Alberta, and then Kearns a week later.
“That’s something that’s actually progressing faster than I thought,” Whitmore said. “I was kind of surprised to see 9.7 (second splits), so that gives me some confidence to get into the 9.6s, which I’ve only done one time ever. So if I can do that, I can win.”
Matt Kooreman, the national sprint team coach agrees.
“I think Mitch is primed,” he said. “The placement doesn’t look that great, but when you start looking at the margins of how far behind he is, he’s been closing the gap throughout the world cups. I think in these next couple of months, we’ll be able to continue that and end up being on top.”
Early in his career, Whitmore placed sixth in the 10,000-meter at the 2006 US Speedskating Championships, but then the sprints won him over. He was the 2009 world junior champ in the 500.
What does Whitmore like about his sport’s shortest race?
“It’s over fast,” he said with a laugh. “No… The reason I got into skating was going as fast as I can and feeling, especially the second corner, just how many g-forces are on your body. You’re trying to hold on for dear life and you’re going as fast as you can.
Speedskaters can reach speeds of over 40 mph. “It’s scary,” Whitmore said, “but also exhilarating.”
And he’s grateful to finally be able to go that fast again.
Teammate Jonathan Garcia said it has been “awesome to see him come back. I think he’s right where he needs to be in the 500. I’m thrilled for him. He’s worked really hard and he’s super talented and super dedicated, and I don’t know very many people that deserve it more than he does.”