By Blythe Lawrence | Dec. 19, 2019, 5:18 p.m. (ET)

 

Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Speedskater Joey Mantia won Male Athlete of the Month for November 2019 after winning the mass start at a world cup in Poland. In Mantia’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, he shares his journey from being a world champion inline skater to a world champion and Olympian speedskater.

An ice man he was not.

Before he was a two-time Olympian and world champion as a long track speedskater, Joey Mantia was a “rink rat” from Ocala, Florida, speeding around an oval and winning world titles on wheels. It wasn’t until he was 25 that he first stepped on the ice.

The learning oval was steep, in the figurative sense, and Mantia wasn’t immediately drawn to the colder surface. He never stopped trying, though, and the effort is now paying off.

Mantia had taken up inline racing around age 9 after being reprimanded for skating too fast during public skating sessions at his rink. He started racing early and winning big, inking the first of his 28 (yes, 28) world titles when he was 18. The next several years passed in a whirl of wheels and competitions and titles, as Mantia put off college to make a living racing around the world.

Then, gradually, the tilt-a-whirl slowed a bit — or at least, started feeling a bit repetitive.

“I was finding redundancy in my seasons, just kind of experiencing the same thing again and again, and I was looking for a change before I started kind of despising the sport I grew up loving,” Mantia, now 33, recalled. “I didn’t want to dig myself into a hole just because I’d always done something. I started getting — I wouldn’t say bored was the right word — but I was looking for something different.” 

He contemplated college, or finding a job outside of inline skating. There was a third option, too: trying a new sport somewhat related to his old one.

Speedskating and inline aren’t the same, but they aren’t so far apart that they’re unrelated, either. In fact, over the years, so many members of the U.S. speedskating team began their careers as inline skaters that formal “wheels to ice” programs sprang up. Mantia decided it was a worth a try, and he moved to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, then to speed hub Salt Lake City, to train at the 2002 Olympic venue in pursuit of his new dream. 

It wasn’t the smoothest shift for Mantia, however. He began training without a coach, then worked with one who was getting ready to go onto other things, then an Olympic medalist who eventually moved back to the Netherlands. There was a whole new vocabulary to learn, and it took Mantia nearly four years to understand what he needed to do technically to put himself in medal contention among the sport’s best.

“I really despised ice skating for a long time, but I’d made the commitment to do it and I wasn’t going to give up on it just because I was having a rough go,” Mantia said. “There’s been more times than I can count where I was like, man, what the heck am I doing?” 

Putting things on ice also meant unlearning some of the less savory techniques he’d relied on to slide to victories as an inline skater.

“I really could just go full and it would produce really good speed and really good results for me, whereas on the ice if you don’t hold back a little bit, keep things clean and stay within the rules of the basic fundamentals, things just fall apart,” he said. “In inline, you can skate ugly and it still works. On the ice it never works.”

Nonetheless, Mantia began picking it up, and then thriving. He made his first Olympic team in 2014, and continued getting better. In particular, Mantia found a natural home in the mass start event, in which up to 24 skaters race together over 16 laps, with four intermediate sprints built in. His breakthrough came in 2017, when he won the world title in that event.

He fell short of the podium one year later, when mass start was part of the Olympics for the first time, but his results since have shown his 2017 world title was no fluke. He again won the world title in 2019.

Mantia credits working with coach Ryan Shimabukuro, a former athlete whose ability to empathize with what a skater is going through, as making a huge difference. After Mantia had a slow start to his world championships last year, Shimabukuro drew him aside for a pep talk.

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Joey Mantia competes at the ISU World Cup on Dec. 15, 2019 in Nagano, Japan. 

 

 “He just kind of came up to me before the mass start and he said, ‘Hey man, this is your race. It doesn’t matter what’s happened before this. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired. Just go out there and do what you do best,’” said Mantia, who went on to defend his world title.

“I believe in what he says. It’s hard to describe exactly the blind faith you have in somebody, but he definitely has that for me.”

The philosophy has allowed Mantia to get off to a strong start so far this winter despite the absence of Shimabukuro, who has been forced to take medical leave after suffering a heart attack earlier this year. With his coach in his thoughts, Mantia took to the ice for a mass start at the second world cup of the season in Poland.

Ranked 12th after the first of 16 laps, he kept his head and bided his time, advancing to third place with two laps to go, then crossing the line in first. He followed up with a silver in the same event in Nagano, Japan, earlier this month.

“Coming into this season, racing the mass start, I was following the same process, thinking no matter how the time trials were going I could still do well in the mass starts, and was able to produce a couple of medals coming out of that thought process,” Mantia said.

His dreams, so tied to ice now, feel like they’re finally starting to thaw.  

“Coming over from inline, where I had relatively consistent success, stepping onto the ice was just a roller coaster,” he said. “Some weekends good, most weekends not. Mentally it’s been pretty strenuous, but it’s part of the journey — it doesn’t come easy.

“You look at Olympic gold medalists and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I spent five or six years never even making teams,’  and now they’re Olympic medalists and it’s all worth it.”

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.