Brittany Bowe competes in the Ladies 1000-meter final race during the ISU World Cup Speed Skating Final on March 7, 2020 in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
For months, Brittany Bowe trained, even when there was no tangible end point in sight.
Beginning in June and rolling through the fall, when in any other year she would have been competing in world cup events, Bowe and her U.S. long track speedskating teammates were grinding away in Salt Lake City.
Until, finally, a goal materialized.
When the ISU announced in late November that it would establish a hub in Heerenveen, Netherlands, and hold two world cup events and the World Single Distances Championships over a four-week span, there was no question in Bowe’s mind about whether to compete.
“I’m a racer,” said Bowe, a two-time Olympian and multi-time world champion. “I love to race. Obviously, the process of training is invaluable, but I do this because I love to race. So getting word that a hub would happen definitely sparked the fire again and was a little bit of the motivation I needed after many, many months of just training and not knowing the next time we would get to go to the start line.”
That opportunity will finally come at those world cups, to be held Jan. 22-24 and Jan. 29-31 at the iconic Thialf stadium, with the world championships to follow Feb. 11-14. Bowe and fellow two-time Olympian Joey Mantia will lead a U.S. contingent that also includes 2018 Olympian Erin Jackson, Ethan Cepuran, Ian Quinn and Conor McDermott-Mostowy.
In deciding to participate, those six signed on for a competition experience unlike anything they have encountered before.
They will need to test negative for COVID-19 before traveling to the Netherlands and upon entering the hotel for the first time. Once on-site, they will spend the next month with their movements limited to the hotel, the arena and pre-scheduled bike rides that require them to avoid contact with anyone outside the bubble. If they leave the bubble for any other reason, they will not be permitted to return.
Bowe, 32, put the most positive spin possible on those restrictions.
“I’m just setting myself up to spend my time efficiently and effectively and just working on the mental aspect of it — whether it’s bringing some books or listening to podcasts and having time to meditate and self-reflect and grow there,” she said.
She expects the experience inside the arena to be more jarring. During the world cup final in Heerenveen last March, Thialf was packed as usual with the screaming, orange-clad fans who play a significant role in its status as, in Bowe’s words, “the speedskating mecca of the world.”
“The environment there is what makes it so special, so I know I’m going to be missing out on that,” she said. “With that said, it’s still one of if not the best places to skate in the world, with or without fans. So that will definitely be a change and may actually make things more on edge with the silence in the building.”
Whatever the atmosphere, Bowe and her teammates will be focused on putting into action everything they have worked on in Utah.
For Bowe, that means an improvement on her 1,500-meter performance from last season. While she was dominant much of 2019-20 in the 1,000-meter, winning a U.S. record seven consecutive races and defending her world cup title at the distance, her struggles in the 1,500-meter drove a “sense of urgency” to improve throughout the extended offseason. She finished ninth in the 1,500-meter world cup standings after winning the previous year.
Bowe has seen the results in the most structured environment available to her so far, US Speedskating’s weekend time trials in Salt Lake City. She has turned in two of her fastest 1,500-meter times outside of world cup competition during those races, leaving her confident she’ll make a better showing at the longer distance on the world stage.
She expects to get more comfortable with each successive weekend she spends on the ice, finding whatever semblance she can of the usual rhythms of the season. Of course she has performance-related goals, but the most important part of the upcoming month in the Netherlands could be as simple as participating in actual races against international competition with the Beijing Olympics looming next winter.
“It’s one thing going to the line here (in Utah) without a ton of pressure, expectation and nerves, and then it’s another thing to go to the start line against the rest of the world where you do feel pressure, expectation, nerves, anxiousness, excitement,” Bowe said. “So just being able to work through those emotions and hopefully land on success will be great for this year but also leading into next season.”