Kristen Santos competes at the ISU World Cup Short Track on Nov. 30, 2019 in Nagoya, Japan.
For short track speedskater Kristen Santos, the 2019-20 season started full of uncertainty and ended much the same way, but in between there was an awful lot of good.
The 25-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, overcame a back injury in the fall to notch some notable performances on the world cup circuit, but just when she was ready to take on the best of the best at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships scheduled for March 13-15 in Seoul, South Korea, the event was cancelled amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
Looking back on the season, however, Santos is able to focus on the highlights, starting with her first individual world cup medal.
“It was honestly surreal after everything I’d gone through,” Santos said of winning the bronze medal in the women’s 1,000-meter in November in Nagoya, Japan. “It was just a whirlwind of emotions. I was skating so well and had built up so much muscle (in the offseason) and I had really high expectations going into the season. Then I got hurt and it just crushed me. It’s still unfortunate that I got hurt because I feel like I could have done significantly better, but it felt amazing. It was great and humbling, I guess, to know that I still had that in me.”
As well as training was going for Santos last summer, she still had off-and-on back pain. She noticed it when she stretched her left hamstring and at other times to different degrees, but she’d have some work done on it and it would feel a little better. Then in August, during a week off, she woke up one morning practically unable to move.
She called her trainer and the next day had an MRI, more to rule out something serious than anything else, she said. Instead, they learned it was serious. Santos had a herniated disc in her back, and a large one at that. Initially she was told she’d need surgery, but the following day Santos consulted a specialist and they decided to give it a couple of weeks and see if it started to heal on its own.
Fortunately, it did. Another week later it was a little better. By the time the first world cup came around on Nov. 1, Santos had been back on the ice for about two weeks, she said. Had it not been held in Salt Lake City, where she now lives, she wouldn’t have competed.
Santos not only competed but finished third in the “B” final of the 1,000-meter and set a new American record with her time of 1 minute, 31.227 seconds.
From there the team headed to Asia, which Santos said still was something of a debate as to whether or not she’d travel because of the long flight. Ultimately, however, she ended up winning the bronze in Nagoya.
“I was really excited to back in an ‘A’ final,” she said. “I’d made two finals the previous year in that race and hadn’t medaled. It wasn’t my perfect race, by any means — no race ever is — but it all worked out really well and I beat a lot of people that I hadn’t expected to.”
Things weren’t just going well for Santos individually, either. At the next world cup stop in Shanghai, the women’s 3,000-meter relay team of Santos, Maame Biney, Corinne Stoddard and Julie Letai won the bronze medal, and they were scheduled to race it again in the world championships. The bronze in Shanghai was Team USA’s first women’s relay world cup medal in eight seasons.
“This was actually the first time since I’ve been on the world cup team, and I’ve been on it for six years now or something like that, that the girls have qualified a relay spot for world championships, so we were definitely doing better than we ever had and were looking forward to that,” Santos said.
In the overall world cup classifications, both the women’s relay team and the mixed relay team finished ranked seventh. Santos was 11th in the 1,000-meter, the men’s relay team was also ranked No. 11 and Biney was ranked No. 15 in the 500-meter. Biney (1,500-meter), Thomas Hong (1,500-meter) and the men’s 5,000-meter relay team all won bronze at the inaugural short track speedskating Four Continents event.
“I think every person on this team is really willing to push themselves every single day and that’s something that’s really important,” Santos said. “I think a lot of us have been improving, and the more we improve and get better everyone gets better as a whole. It’s definitely healthy competition every day at practice and it keeps us all motivated and going.”
The month of March hasn’t been all disappointment for Santos, however.
On a personal level, it’s been anything but. Her longtime boyfriend proposed a week ago while they were on a hike with their dogs, and she said yes.
“It was a surprise,” she said. “I had no idea.”
And, of course, she and the rest of the team understand the cancelation of world championships, disappointing as it is, is in everyone’s best interest.
“Overall it was disappointing because I was excited to go and prove myself,” she said. “I was feeling better than I ever had before and feeling like I could have done really well in the 1,000, but I completely understand why. Everyone’s safety and well-being is definitely more important.”