As Olympic medalist Brittany Bowe looked back on her 2018-19 speed skating season, she wrote in an Instagram post that she is, “filled with so much pride, joy, and gratitude.” Considering what she accomplished this season, those emotions make sense.
Bowe — who is being celebrated this week as one of the impressive Women of Team USA — won gold in the 1,000-meter at the world championships, breaking the world record along the way. She added a bronze medal at worlds in the 1,500, a bronze at world sprint championships and won 14 world cup medals en route to the overall world cup title in both the 1,000 and 1,500.
In short, it’s been quite the year.
“The main question was is she in a point in her life where she's able to come back and be what she was,” said Joey Cheek, Olympic gold, sivler and bronze medalist and speedskating commentator for NBC. “The fact that she's 31, and skating faster than she's ever skated before, it's just thrilling to watch as a spectator. And for someone who is such a fan of the sport as I am, it feels like vindication. You knew she was capable of it.”
With her dominant season coming a year after the Winter Games, there’s a tendency to wonder what if. What if those world championship medals could be Olympic medals?
“What Brittany's done is terrific,” said USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. “It's easy to look and say, if only it had been last year, but she did it this year, and that's pretty remarkable. Coming back from a concussion, this makes it all the more special.”
Olympic speedskating legend Bonnie Blair Cruikshank kept in touch with Bowe over the season. They text before and after races, so Blair Cruikshank has seen her struggles up close.
“You almost wonder that if the Olympics were one month later, what would have happened,” Blair Cruikshank said. “Even last year, she skated pretty well considering the circumstances. How she came back from what she was in, she skated amazing.”
Olympic sports are always played with one eye on the present, one eye on the Olympic year. Even the most amazing accomplishments that happen in non-Olympic years tend to get overshadowed. It’s just the way the Olympic schedule, and the Olympic spotlight, works. Bowe’s gold medal at the world championship comes without a visit to the “TODAY” show or getting her face on a cereal box.
But it’s no less impressive. Taking the 1,000-meter record back at the world championships after dominating all season means she was able to peak at the exact right time.
While Bowe belongs right alongside Team USA’s most dominant athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin and Simone Biles, being dominant does not mean there’s no competition. Japan’s Miho Takagi and Nao Kodaira and the Netherlands’ Ireen Wust all have beaten Bowe, and she has shown she can beat them.
“She's not unbeatable, so that's the motivation for her,” Cheek said. “She has to continue to fend off really close, really tough competitors.”
The challenge that stands in front of Bowe now is to continue her winning ways to Beijing in 2022. She will turn 34 four days after the Beijing Games end. While a skater competing into her mid-thirties isn’t unheard of, it won’t be easy, either.
“Now let's hope she can keep that longevity going and be able to keep that freshness she needs moving forward,” Blair Cruikshank said. “That would be great if she can ride this out to the next Games.”
“It's physically possible,” said Cheek. “Brittany Bowe is certainly mentally capable of it. But that's the big task for her and her coaches, her team, the staff, to say, ‘What do we need to do for the next three years to be better than we are right now?’ I think she really knows she has to manage this machine. I believe that she's capable of it. The challenge is much greater for someone who is 31, going to be 35 or so at the Olympics, than it is to be 21 and 25. Every day gets a little harder, unlike every day getting a little easier in your 20s.”
Nothing will be easy in making it to another Winter Games, but it’s what she loves.
In Bowe’s Instagram post at the end of her season, she said, “The JOY of being able train, race, and compete day in and day out is something I continue to cherish season after season. It’s an honor to race alongside the best ladies in the world and the records and barriers that we broke this year are remarkable.”
The injuries, the lack of a spotlight, the competition, the aches and pains that come with age — it’s all part of what makes years like this so sweet.
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.