Kristen Santos competes in the women's 1,000-meter time trial at the U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials on Jan. 2, 2014 in Salt Lake City.
After winning her first individual world cup medal during the 2019-20 season, short track speedskater Kristen Santos arrived at the 2021 world championships this past March in Dordrecht, Netherlands, with her eyes on a medal.
Her results were solid — fourth in the 500-meter and eighth overall. But one of her Instagram posts said it all: “Definitely not the weekend I had hoped for, but looking forward to smarter racing next season.”
Santos, the U.S. record holder in the 500 and 1,000 meters, knows she has the strength, speed and skill to compete with the world’s best. What she wants now are the finishing touches: guile, focus, realizing when to apply the brakes and when to put the pedal to the metal.
“I know I’m capable of a lot in my sport, but it comes down to race strategy, moves during racing, things like that,” said Santos, who is among the U.S. skaters in Beijing for the world cup opener this weekend. Events run Thursday through Sunday.
“The main thing it comes down to is making smart moves — making a pass in the race at the right time, knowing when to stay in the back of the pack and when to go to the front, not using energy when you don’t have to.”
Pressed for details, the 26-year-old Santos, who hails from Fairfield, Connecticut, but now lives and trains in Salt Lake City, gives a too common example of how to come out on the losing end of a rough-and-tumble race.
“Sometimes, someone will try to pass you, and you’ll work super hard to block them,” she said. “Sometimes you work so hard, and they end up passing you anyway, so you work really hard for nothing.”
When Santos was climbing the ranks, strategy wasn’t quite as important. Now that she’s considered a contender by herself and others, every race decision is magnified tenfold.
“I was used to not doing much during a race, so I didn’t make many mistakes,” she said. “But now that I am in the mix, I’ve made quite a few.
“When I go on the line with all the top skaters, I am focused on what they are going to do and how good they are, rather than focusing on myself and what I am planning to do in the race,” she added. “I sometimes make panicky mistakes, thinking, “Who is in front of me now? What are they going to do?’ And not taking the time for an opportunity to happen.”
It’s something Santos, with the help of short track national team coach Stephen Gough, and high-performance director Andréa Do-Duc, is working to fix. The key is to stick to her own race plan.
“I’ve definitely learned how to calm myself down going into a race, how to focus on myself and give myself positive talk, things like that,” she said. “One thing that has helped is keeping a training log, a notebook where I write down everything I do in practices. … It’s a physical representation of how hard I’ve worked and how far I’ve come, a reminder of what I am capable of.”
Santos puts that preparation into action this week in Beijing. She will compete in the 1,500-, 1,000- and 500-meter individual races, as well as the mixed relay and the women’s 3,000 meter relay.
“It’s the test event for the Beijing Olympics, so it’s a really great opportunity for all of us to see the venue, get a feel for the ice, kind of experience how everything is going to run,” she said. “And then on top of that, this is first of four world cups that are qualifiers for the Olympics.”
Team USA’s results at those events determine how many spots it earns for athletes at the short track events at the Beijing Games. Once again, strategy comes into play.
“These first four world cups, I’m really focused on skating well, but skating safe and qualifying spots,” Santos said. “I definitely want to put my best foot forward each competition, but I am focusing on the second half of the season, with the Olympic trials and then, hopefully, the Olympics. I definitely want to be at my peak for that.”
Four years ago, an untimely injury meant Santos wasn’t able to peak for an Olympic run. While she was racing at a world cup in China a month before trials, a competitor’s skate sliced into her hand, cutting tendons in her hand and wrist. Santos flew home and had surgery the following day, spending more than two weeks off the ice.
“I was back a week and a half before trials, but obviously not in top shape,” she said. “I needed someone to tie my skates for me, tie my hair back, help dress me, help me with everything.”
That’s where Travis Griswold stepped up. Santos’ longtime boyfriend, whom she met through friends at University of Utah, went with her to practice each morning, learning to tie her skates exactly the way she liked.
“He is honestly amazing and has helped me so much on my skating journey, my life journey, everything,” Santos said. “We’ve been together for almost eight years now. … I do not know what I would do without him.”
The couple plans to marry in August.
While Santos missed making the 2018 Olympic team — she needed a top-three finish and placed fourth — the experience fueled her ambition.
“My whole life I wanted to be an Olympian, but (the injury) made me realize it was really about more than that,” she said.
“I want to be a top racer, I want to win a medal, I want to make a difference at the Olympics. I don’t want to just go and possibly finish in last place. So I think that was a big motivator for me these past four years.”