Joey Mantia poses for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit ahead of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Sept. 27, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – During this week’s speedskating events in PyeongChang on Saturday, the temperatures in central Florida are projected to climb above 80 degrees. Yet, that’s where a hotbed for this ice sport has emerged.
Four U.S. speedskaters — Brittany Bowe, Erin Jackson, Mia Manganello and Joey Mantia — hail from the Sunshine State, making Florida the most common home state on the U.S. long track roster for the 2018 Games.
When people find out Mantia is a winter Olympian from such a warm place, he said their reaction is usually a variation of, “How does a kid from Florida become a speedskater?” Then he explains, and it starts to make sense.
All four of these athletes switched to the ice from inline skating. They previously trained in Ocala, Florida, under Renee Hildebrand, who they credit for developing them as athletes in a sport that requires technique and endurance, which carry over to long track speedskating, Manganello said.
“We all maybe found the same coach by chance,” Bowe said. “But it's not a mistake that we're all up here today. She breeds champions and we had such a great atmosphere — an intense but fun atmosphere from such a young age.”
Since they made the switch from inline skating in Florida to speedskating in cool climates, all four have progressed from being newcomers to the nation’s best. Jackson, the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. long track team, and Manganello are both making their Olympic debut.
Mantia and Bowe competed in Sochi, and Mantia is coming into the Games as the world champion in the mass start, a new event on the Olympic program. Because of his inline skating background, the mass start comes naturally, Mantia said. Unlike other long track events, the athletes do not race one pair at a time; instead, there are 24 skaters who race over 16 laps to the finish, with skaters receiving points for certain intervals.
“It's pretty much in my blood,” Mantia said. “It's not something I have to think about too, too much.”
Sometimes the transition from inline skating can be tricky. The fundamentals might be similar since these athletes grew up on skates, but the ice can cause a need for adjustments.
Mantia first tried skating on ice when he visited the Netherlands in 2010 to teach an inline speedskating camp. It went terribly, he said, adding that if he wins a medal in PyeongChang, the footage of his unsuccessful attempt will somehow surface. Almost a year later, Mantia decided to make the permanent switch and moved from Florida to Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile for Manganello, her first experience skating on ice was “magical,” she said. When Manganello was 13, she and her dad, who was a competitive inline skater, drove to Utah for a speedskating clinic.
“I was hooked,” Manganello said. “There were some coaches saying, 'Oh, she's got potential.' They could have been blowing smoke. I don't know. But I believed it. Then when we got home, we decided that maybe this was something we wanted to do.”
A few years prior, the family moved from Crestview, Florida, to Ocala so Manganello could train under Hildebrand. They packed up again, this time heading toward Salt Lake City, where Manganello could begin her career on ice.
During the drive out West, Manganello experienced unfamiliar wintry conditions. After the family’s RV hit a rock and forced Manganello’s dad to go get a new tire, the 13-year-old built a snowman and watched her dachshund hop through the snow on the side of the road.
In Florida, snow is just as foreign as some of these winter sports. Manganello had watched the Olympic Winter Games as a child but never paid close attention. As a Floridian, Bowe didn’t know inline skating could lead her to an ice sport.
Residents of Ocala, Florida, might not have always be fully aware of these sports that take place in cold-weather climates. But since this Olympic speedskating pipeline has started to develop, Bowe said, those in the town are certainly aware now.
“They think it's awesome,” Bowe said.
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.