KC Boutiette competes in the men's 5000-meter race at the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006 at the Oval Lingotto on Feb. 11, 2006 in Torino, Italy.
KC Boutiette enjoys catching people off guard.
When he joined a group bike ride on a visit to Florida last September, another rider remembered being amazed that Boutiette kept up with the same pack a few years earlier – while on inline skates.
The rider asked Boutiette, “So, you’re winning the masters events?”
“And I go, ‘No, I’m doing the real deal. I’m racing against the kids,’” Boutiette replied. “He’s like, ‘Oh!’ Even though it’s tough sometimes being the old dude, it’s kind of fun to get the respect.”
At age 47, Boutiette is vying for one more Olympic Winter Games. The four-time Olympian (from 1994-2006) will need the race of his life Sunday in the mass start at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in Milwaukee.
“I’m going to go for it,” said Boutiette, a father of two who owns a business making custom cycling shoes. “The chips need to fall perfectly into place.”
Only two U.S. men will go to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in mass start, a new Olympic event. Competitors start at the same time in the 16-lap race and earn points via sprints on the 4th, 8th and 12th laps in addition to points at the finish.
Luckily for Boutiette, it’s an event perfect for catching people off guard, roaring around them on the final turn.
Joey Mantia, the 31-year-old reigning world champion, is the favorite after winning both races in October at the Fall World Cup Qualifier. Points from the trials race will be added to the first two races to determine the Olympic team.
Boutiette is ranked No. 6 with 88 points. He would need the win – worth 100 points – at the Pettit Center plus separation from rivals Jeffrey Swider-Peltz, Brian Hansen, Chase Reichmann and Ian Quinn, a skater who is about half his age.
Boutiette pulled his groin four days before the first race. “I pretty much skated the mass start almost one-legged, but I was still in position to win,” he said.
Boutiette was in second place among 14 competitors with a lap to go when he said another skater dropped in on him. “I could have done one of two things,” Boutiette said, “go shoulder to shoulder, put him into the cement or be the bigger man, let him in and then try to come back in the turn. So I let him in.”
Boutiette finished third in the race, but wound up ranked fourth because of the points for sprints. In the second mass start race four days later, an additional seven skaters were allowed to enter, which meant more traffic.
“I just made a tactical mistake – plain and simple,” said Boutiette, who was sixth, but with no points for sprints placed 10th.
While skaters go in pairs in the other individual long track speedskating events, the mass start means that strategy is as important as speed as skaters break away, chase and work together before the final sprint.
“I think with the technical aspect and the strategy, I have an advantage over everybody,” Boutiette said. “If I was 10 years younger, I’d be dominating, you know? It’s just I have to be very, very cautious on what I’m doing because my body isn’t as fresh as it used to be.”
He said that in the past he could chase a breakaway down and still be fresh enough to sprint at the end. Now Boutiette has to do the math, figure out how much energy he would expend and how much he’d have left in the tank.
“Because these kids, once they get moving, I’m done,” he said. “So I have to be smarter than them and use my bag of tricks and hopefully keep them in check.”
Speedskating legend Bonnie Blair, who was leaving the sport as Boutiette was coming in, said that although he struggled at the fall trials, “I wouldn’t count him out of it.”
“I think he’s got that go-get-em-ness, never-give-up attitude and he’s worked really hard,” Blair said, “I think it’s been really exciting for KC to be on this course and see where he can go with it.”
If he makes it to PyeongChang, Boutiette said he would work in tandem with Mantia, just as they did at the last world championships when Mantia came out on top.
“I would do anything to work for Joey,” Boutiette said. “And they know I’m the best guy for the job. If we race together at the Olympics, we could do something special. I know if I skate with Joey, he could probably get me on the podium, but I could get him on the top.”
Boutiette would be the oldest Olympic speedskater since Albert Tebbit of Great Britain competed in the first Winter Games in 1924 at age 52. His favorite quote is “It’s never too late to try.”
Boutiette qualified for his first Games in 1994, in Lillehammer, a scant six weeks after switching from inline skating to ice, and was a pioneer in bringing a wave of inliners to speedskating.
His best Olympic finish is fifth place in the 5,000 in Salt Lake City.
When mass start, an event similar to inline pack racing, was added to the 2018 Olympic program, Boutiette saw an opportunity that matched his skill set. He decided to resume full-time training and made the U.S. world cup team in 2014.
While his quest has taken time away from his family, he said he is doing it for his family: wife Kristi, 5-year-old son Braam and 2-year-old daughter Brooke.
“My family hasn’t seen this side of my life and I have an opportunity to go to another Olympics, so that’s why I’m doing it,” he said in September at the Team USA Media Summit. “And I’ve got a 5-year-old son and now he’s learning how to win, how to lose, what it’s like in sport because you can’t win everything.”
Boutiette said that teaching that lesson hasn’t always been easy on Braam, named for the Dutch world for a burr that develops when skates are being sharpened.
At a competition in Holland, Braam was thrilled when Boutiette won his heat. Then he placed fifth in the final, won by Mantia.
“So I was still really happy with my placement and Braam is crying. My wife’s like, ‘Well Joey still won,’ because Joey came to Christmas dinner before the last Olympic trials and is a good friend of mine. And Braam said, ‘I don’t like Joey!’ He wants Dad to win so bad it doesn’t matter.”
Boutiette picked Braam up after the race and took him for a lap on the ice. “That’s our time to talk,” he said. “That’s our time to say, ‘Well, you can’t win ‘em all. I did my best. I had fun. I was fifth place, still pretty awesome.’ It’s fantastic for me to be able to live that with him.’”
Yet Boutiette nearly hung up his skates in November 2016 after winning a silver medal in the mass start at a world cup in Nagano, Japan. It was his first world cup medal since 2004 and he became the oldest skater to win a world cup medal at 46 years, 224 days.
“I almost 100 percent called it a career,” Boutiette said, “That was awesome and I was like, ‘I could be done right now because there are other things in my life that mean more.’”
Brooke was born with special needs and has been in and out of the hospital.
“It’s like, ‘I want to be Dad right now,’” said Boutiette. “And I kind of want my wife to have her life back because she’s taken over so much responsibility. She’s our breadwinner. I feel like I’m not helping and it’s hard, and when I got on the podium, I thought, ‘Should I call it? Should this be it?’”
He talked to Kristi, who works in advertising. “She said, ‘Well, we’re so close. It’s only a year away,’ and I keep going. But it’s really hard when I get an achievement like that because I always like to finish on top. And on top doesn’t mean winning. It’s doing your best at something. And I know in that mass start race for me, I’m going to need a lot of luck.”
Why luck? “Because I’m not as fast as I used to be,” Boutiette said. “Mentally I feel like I’m 25, physically, something changed in my body, even in the last year that I can’t train like I used to. The last turn was always my strong point where I could run out and no one’s going to pass me, but where now I lock up. And that’s hard to deal with, too.”
But Boutiette has experience on his side from racing in a pack in inline events and in marathons in Europe.
“He’s always been phenomenal at that,” said 2002 Olympic gold medalist Casey FitzRandolph, a former teammate. “That’s been his strength since day one. I’ll never forget when he came onto the scene. His craftiness and strategy in long track with two guys on the ice who are in their own lane race was impressive, then you put him in a mass start and it’s compounded. I wouldn’t rule him out! I know that.”
Mantia knows that Boutiette would make a great teammate in PyeongChang.
“I think it’s definitely going to take some good team skating,” he said, “some camaraderie, a lot of selflessness going in.”
Mantia, who also came from inline skating, said Boutiette has motivated him.
“I’m 31, and I thought I was old,” Mantia said. “And I’m looking at this guy and I’m like, ‘Well, I have no excuses ever about anything.’ And he’s got a family and I’m a bachelor hanging out, just training, no job.
“I know there’s days when I have it rough on the ice and I’m just not really feeling it and I kind of look over at KC and I’m like, ‘Well, I need to step it up because this guy has got way more to deal with than I do.’ He keeps me honest and on top of my game and motivated, so it’s definitely nice to have him around.”
Boutiette said he enjoys helping other skaters and is viewed as virtually another coach on the ice.
“I see people going through a hard time and I’m the first one there saying, ‘Well, do this, do that,’ but it does get in the way,” he said. “My wife’s like, ‘Don’t. Help. Anybody. Anymore. You have to be selfish.’ Because the last two Olympics that I went to, my own spot was almost taken away from helping other people. It’s like ‘Gosh, when am I going to be selfish enough to just do my own thing and just push everybody aside?’ It’s just not in my nature. I help everybody.”
When Boutiette won the silver medal at the Nagano world cup, he said Mantia helped him. “It’s on video where Joey is standing up, slowing everybody down,” Boutiette said. “He doesn’t tell anybody that. He says he didn’t do anything, but in my opinion that’s what teammates do.”
And he knows that would be his role if both he and Mantia go to PyeongChang. “I’m willing to take a backseat,” Boutiette said. “And that’s hard for someone like myself to do because I do want to medal. I mean it would be awesome.”
If he won a medal, he’d share it.
“I would take that medal and I’d chop it up into however many pieces that I needed to give a piece to every single person that helped me along the way,” he said, “starting when I was a kid, 8 years old when I started skating.”
Boutiette said he’d be left with a little piece of a medal and a ribbon, but that would be enough.
Or, he’d even be content knowing he had a role in Mantia winning a medal.
“If I knew I had a part of it,” he said, “right now I’m getting a little choked up thinking about it. The joy of being a part of something like that would be pretty cool.”