Maria Lamb celebrates after winning the ladies mass start event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials on Jan. 7, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wis.
Maria Lamb’s health issues were so severe in 2015 that the three-time Olympian lost her national team spot as well as her funding.
Determined to become a competitive long track speedskater again, Lamb survived on bone broth soup and moved into a yurt.
That might not appeal to everyone, but it worked for her.
Eventually Lamb’s digestive system allowed her to expand her diet. And she saved a lot of money by living in the authentic Mongolian yurt, which cost about $6,000, for four years – three by herself and one with her eventual husband.
“When I got it, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, what am I getting myself into?’” said Lamb. “But I ended up really, really loving it. People were always surprised how cozy and nice it was inside when they came over.”
The 35-year-old had an even bigger surprise for the speedskating community on Oct. 23. After competing sparingly for the past several years, she raced the 5,000-meter, her favorite event, at the world cup qualifier on the Utah Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City.
Lamb clocked 7 minutes, 10.77 seconds, which was only a little more than a second off her personal best of 7:09.62 from back in 2009. Consider that in 2020 Lamb’s fastest time was 7:25.71 and she went 7:33.09 in 2019 and 7:31.74 in 2018.
On Friday, Lamb will compete at a world cup in Stavanger, Norway, with an Olympic berth at stake. Only 12 athletes in the women’s 5,000 will qualify for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. with a maximum of two per country.
Lamb ranks No. 13 on the world list, but nine of the women ranked ahead of her are from the Netherlands.
While there are four long track speedskating world cups prior to the Olympics, this is the only one featuring the longest distance races for men and women.
“It is a one-and-done deal,” Lamb said, adding with a laugh, “so don’t mess it up.”
Jamie Jurak will also compete for Team USA in the 5,000. The men’s 10,000 has a similar selection procedure with Casey Dawson the top American contender.
This is Lamb’s first world cup since December 2018, and she admits she wasn’t in good form for that race in Poland. When was the last time Lamb felt she was competitive internationally? The world championship in the Netherlands in the spring of 2015.
“I think I still know what to do,” she said. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Born to Race — and To Research
Lamb’s gift for research, as much as her talent on the ice, is responsible for her comeback. The Wisconsin native took her first “learn to skate” class across the border in Minnesota when she was 6. “I was pretty terrible at learning tricks of any kind in figure skating,” Lamb said. “All I wanted to do was just skate laps around the little hockey rink as fast as I could.”
So, she became a speedskater at age 8. Lamb made her first Olympic team in 2006 in the 1,500, finishing 24th, and was fifth in team pursuit. In 2010, she achieved her goal of making Team USA in the 5,000, but fell in training a few days later, jeopardizing her Olympic experience.
“I went into the pads feet first and stuck one blade into the other ankle, and I cut myself pretty deep,” she said. “It ended up getting infected and I arrived in Vancouver with a walking boot on and on a ton of antibiotics.”
Lamb wasn’t sure she’d be able to skate 12 laps in a row, but she did and was proud of her performance in placing 15th.
In 2014, Lamb was 16th in the 5,000 as the whole American long track speedskating team under-performed. “Emotionally, that was definitely really difficult for me,” she said. “Afterwards you have to try and move on as best as you can.”
But something began holding Lamb back in 2015. She struggled with both training and racing, failing to recover like she had before. When the season ended, she felt even worse.
Lamb couldn’t eat anything without being sick. She was diagnosed with advanced celiac disease and informed her small intestine was extremely damaged. “They told me, ‘You’re not really able to properly digest or assimilate nutrients and food,’ which obviously seems pretty problematic if you’re trying to be an athlete,” Lamb said.
That’s when she demonstrated her ability as a researcher. Because Lamb’s doctors were recommending medication which only would mask her symptoms, she found a doctor in the United Kingdom specializing in “healing the gut through diet” and followed her protocol.
Since Lamb was no longer part of the national team and did not have funding, she got a part-time job at a gated community in Park City, Utah, where she rented out bikes in the summer and skis and snowshoes in the winter. She also gave guided hikes.
And Lamb bought the yurt to reduce her living expenses. “I was trying to set up my life to make skating still a possibility,” she said.
Lamb found “some incredibly generous people” who let her put the yurt on their property and run a power cord to their house for electricity. Although the yurt was 19 feet across and a little over 300 square feet, it did not have indoor plumbing. It did have a wood stove for heat, a standalone sink with a 5-gallon bucket underneath and a 5-gallon water jug with a spigot, and a two-burner camp stove that was sufficient for whatever Lamb wanted to cook.