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Three-Sport Athlete Theresa Cliff-Ryan: Knocked Down But Not Out

By Karen Rosen | Jan. 02, 2014, 3 p.m. (ET)

L-R: Anna Ringsnred (second), Jilleanne Rookard (first) and Theresa Cliff-Ryan (third) celebrate on the podium after the women's 3,000-meter during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 27, 2013 in Kearns, Utah. 

KEARNS, Utah -- Theresa Cliff-Ryan hates being told there’s something she can’t do.

“I think people have caught on to that and say it to me on purpose,” she said.

That’s one way to motivate an athlete who was world-class in inline skating and cycling and on the brink of success in long track speedskating, a sport she’s still learning after only a few months on the ice.

But Cliff-Ryan, 35, went against her nature Wednesday. Two days after she was injured in a freak accident, she withdrew from the 5,000 meters at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating.

“I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t get to skate and give it a try, because I think I could have had a good race,” Cliff-Ryan said, “but I think it’s best for my health that I didn’t.”

She had just finished practice Monday when a male skater lost control at top speed and crashed into her. Cliff-Ryan flew into the air, landing hard on her face. Though she was placed on a backboard and taken to the hospital, her injuries weren’t as bad as initially feared — a concussion, whiplash and facial fractures, plus some lost and loose teeth.

“They couldn’t officially stop me because it is trials, but I didn’t pass the concussion tests and (the doctors) highly recommended I didn’t skate,” Cliff-Ryan said. “So it was a hard decision to make, but I pulled myself from the race.”

It meant the end of her Olympic dream — for now. 

Cliff-Ryan was a 29-time world champion and Pan American Games gold medalist in a sport that, to her chagrin, is not in the Olympic Games: inline skating. Cliff-Ryan retired at age 27 and took up cycling, where she was national criterium champion and a world cup medalist, but just missed being named to the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Cycling Teams.

Theresa Cliff-Ryan competes in the women's 3,000-meter during
the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating
at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 27, 2013 in Kearns, Utah. 

“So I thought I’d give this one a try,” Cliff-Ryan said of long track speedskating. 

There was no doubt in her mind she could do it. “I’ve kind of always been an underdog growing up my whole life,” she said. “People say, ‘Girls can’t do that,’ or if I’d had an injury and I have to perform well in a month, they say, ‘You’ve had an injury, you can’t make a comeback.’ I hate that. I like to prove people wrong.”

On the first day of competition at the Olympic Trials, Cliff-Ryan missed making the Olympic team in the 3,000 meters by one spot and .76 seconds. 

“I’ve only been on the ice 168 times,” she said after the race. “I’m an inliner, cyclist and now I just started skating, so I have to be pretty proud with how I did.”

Because Cliff-Ryan didn’t get to finish what she started due to the accident, she said she’s even more motivated to continue competing. However, she said she will probably take a year off so she and husband Gary can try to start a family. 

“I was hoping I had a shot, but it’s just a bad accident,” Cliff-Ryan said. “Maybe in four years I’ll make a comeback.”

Those who know Cliff-Ryan figured she would have raced Wednesday if she could. Just in case, Cliff-Ryan did not take the prescribed pain medications because any drugs would have disqualified her.

“She’s super stubborn,” said Jilleanne Rookard, the 3,000-meter champion who never beat Cliff-Ryan on inline skates. “(After the accident) she rolled over and spit out a couple of teeth and some blood and I’m like, ‘Ahhh, she’ll be back at it. She’s a tough chick.’”

Instead of competing, Cliff-Ryan was a spectator at the Utah Olympic Oval, where Maria Lamb took the lone U.S. spot in the 5,000. 

She and Lamb hugged in the mixed zone. “I’m not easily impressed, but I’m impressed that she was here,” Lamb said. “I think that was very brave of her.”

Cliff-Ryan also hugged Kevin Geminder, the skater who crashed into her. “Of course he’s sorry,” she said. “He didn’t mean it; it was just a freak accident. We’re happy both of us are OK. It could have been much worse.”

Cliff-Ryan said she saw Geminder coming at her, and then the next thing she remembered, a trainer was telling her not to move.

“Apparently there’s a video and it’s just horrifying,” she said. “I haven’t seen it yet. I hope to see it — of course, I want to see it. I think that’s human nature.”

Based on her practice the day of the accident, Cliff-Ryan’s coach, Matt Kooreman, thought she could have won the 5,000, even though she had never raced the distance in practice or competition. He said it was sad that she didn’t get the chance.

“She’s so fresh on the scene,” Kooreman said. “She hasn’t done that much racing or skating, but I really thought she could make that 5,000 team.”

While she’s fresh on the speedskating scene, Cliff-Ryan has been an athlete nearly her whole life.

The Cedar Springs, Mich., native was on roller skates at age 2. Because there was no competitive division for 2-year-olds, Cliff-Ryan raced against the 5-year-olds. 

“In my first race I started and I turned around when I got to the first pylon and cried all the way back,” she said.

Cliff-Ryan’s tears dried and she went on to become a legend in the sport. She won the overall gold medal at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and was the champion twice at the World Games, an event for non-Olympic sports.

In 2005, Cliff-Ryan retired. “I accomplished everything I could in that sport, but it wasn’t an Olympic sport,” she said.

Speedskating was, but Cliff-Ryan wasn’t ready for the cold. “I liked following the sun,” she said. She dabbled in cycling and an old sponsor from her inline days offered to pay her expenses and coach her with the Olympic Games the ultimate goal.

Cliff-Ryan and her husband, a former inline skater for Australia, moved to Philadelphia. Competing in her first bike race in May 2006, Cliff-Ryan placed third.

She won the national criterium title later in 2006 and also won over her fellow cyclists, who initially wondered where she’d come from and what she was doing there.

“A lot of people tuned in when I skated the 3,000 and were yelling at the TV,” Cliff-Ryan said. “I have a great cycling fan base.”

In the run-up in to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Cliff-Ryan was the only American to medal at a world cup in the points race, taking the bronze in Copenhagen, Denmark. However, she was overlooked for the U.S. Olympic Team.

When the points race was dropped from the 2012 Olympic program, Cliff-Ryan switched to road cycling. She competed in two UCI Road World Championships, placing 18th in the road race in 2011.

“I’d become pretty good at that and beat some of the best sprinters in the world leading into the Games,” Cliff-Ryan said.

She also proved her resilience, breaking her femur head, some ribs, her sternum and puncturing a lung while vying for an Olympic berth. “These were all separate crashes, too,” she said.

Although Cliff-Ryan was named to the U.S. long team, she did not make the final cut for London. 

Her best friend Desly Hill called and said, “Why don’t you try ice?” so Cliff-Ryan went to Holland and put on some new skates.

Back when Cliff-Ryan was 17, she was invited to attend a speedskating clinic with KC Boutiette, the Olympian who’d led the initial wave of inline skaters to the ice in the 1990s.

“I wish I would have switched then,” she said.

But Cliff-Ryan was still riding a high from her win at the inline world championships and didn’t pay much attention. Plus, it was cold and she wasn’t very good at skating on the ice.

“The first couple of days I just tried to get up as much speed as I could and then slid on my butt,” Cliff-Ryan said. “I had a bit of fun, and then the last few days I didn’t even go. So I want to apologize to KC for that.”

She’s apologized to Boutiette in person multiple times since. Now they’re friends and he gives her tips during training and lets her skate behind him.

“She seems to be improving every time she steps out on the ice,” Boutiette said. “I just hope that she has the motivation to stick with it, because I still think that she’s a talent. 

“She had other things to do, but she would have been and still could be one of the best.”

Cliff-Ryan arrived at the Utah Olympic Oval in November 2012, stayed a couple of months, then went back to cycling to fulfill her contracts. 

“I was enjoying that so much that I kind of forgot about (speedskating),” said Cliff-Ryan, who runs a cycling clothing business called Vie13 with her husband. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to come out and do it. I’m getting older, it was time to start a family and have fun. But just in case, whenever Gary and I went to any of the cycling events, we had all of our stuff in the car, ready to go if I decided to come out here. At the end of July, we were at a race in Chicago and I said, ‘Yep, let’s try it.’ So In August we drove out here and I started again.”

By December, she had made the national team and competed in a world cup in Berlin. 

Now Cliff-Ryan’s short-term plan is to get her teeth fixed and then start a family. Long-term, she could still make a go at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. “I know I’ll be older so I have to be smarter,” she said, “but I think it’s possible.”

“If she decides that’s something that she wants to do, I wouldn’t bet against her by any means,” said Kooreman. “She’s a great athlete and she’s super focused.”

Just think what will happen if someone tells Cliff-Ryan she can’t do it.

Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to since 2009.