GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- When Joey Mantia first started inline skating, he never intended for it to be a pathway to becoming an Olympian.
Inline speedskating isn’t on the Olympic program, but Mantia still traveled around the world thanks to his success in the sport. He started racing professionally at age 17, and he has more inline skating world championship titles than he can count, even if he uses his fingers and toes.
Then, around age 25 when Mantia said he was “kind of on the outs” of his inline career and losing motivation to train, he made the switch to ice. Now a two-time Olympian in long track speedskating, Mantia notched his highest individual Olympic finish when he placed eighth in the 1,500-meter on Tuesday at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Yet, this ice version of his childhood sport is something Mantia said he’s still trying to master. His top-10 performance at the Gangneung Oval wasn’t a display of his full potential, he said, adding that even after seven years on the ice, he still struggles with consistency.
“For me,” he said, “it's rolling the dice.”
In a perfect world where everything goes just right, Mantia said he could medal in all of his four events in PyeongChang. But Tuesday wasn’t one of those ideal performances. Instead, on the first lap he said he already wasn’t feeling like himself.
“If I was winning all year and I came and I didn't perform here, then I'd say, 'OK, I choked under pressure,'” Mantia said. “But if you look back at all my results from the last seven years, it's been like this. It goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down. ... I'm going to turn it around.”
The Netherlands’ Kjeld Nuis won the race in 1:44.01, almost two seconds faster than Mantia. Nuis’ teammate Patrick Roest placed second, while South Korea’s Min Seok Kim claimed the bronze medal.
Mantia finished the highest of the three Team USA speedskaters racing in the 1,500. In his third Games, Brian Hansen placed 15th. Five-time Olympian Shani Davis finished 19th but said hopefully this race “got all the cobwebs out” so he’ll be ready to medal in the 1,000. That’s the race he said he’s better suited for, with two gold medals in it.
While the U.S. speedskaters haven’t claimed a medal yet in PyeongChang, Hansen said there have already been high points, such as Brittany Bowe placing fifth in the women’s 1,500 on Monday night.
"Everyone is staying positive and there are still some more races to come,” Hansen said.
All three U.S. athletes who raced in the men’s 1,500 have more opportunities to medal in PyeongChang. Three events remain on Mantia’s slate — the 1,000, mass start and team pursuit. Hansen, who said this will probably be his final Games, will join Mantia in the mass start and team pursuit. Davis will also skate in the 1,000.
“I'm not going to go home today [to] feel sorry for myself and have my head between my legs,” Mantia said. “I'm going to pick up the pieces, watch some video and figure out what I need to do to fix it.”
One of the significant challenges that has plagued Mantia since he’s been skating on ice has been the concept of racing against the clock. In most long track events, athletes skate in pairs and their times are ranked. It’s nothing like inline skating, Mantia said, where athletes can have a race strategy that evolves depending on how opponents skate.
However, there’s one event that plays to Mantia’s roots. In the mass start, an event making its debut in PyeongChang, all athletes race at once. Mantia heads into the 2018 Games as the defending mass start world champion, a title he earned at the same oval being used for the Games.
When Mantia opted to leave the world of inline skating, he had seemingly reached the pinnacle of that sport. Before he steps away from speedskating, there’s still more he hopes to accomplish. And it’s something he could achieve in the coming weeks.
“A medal would be cool,” he said. “A gold medal, obviously, is the ultimate goal.”
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.