Kristen Santos raises her game

March 07, 2019, 5:40 p.m. (ET)

Kristen Santos continues to surprise herself. As she prepares to skate in her first Short Track World Championships, her success this season includes winning the National Championship Title, skating her way to two individual world cup A Finals and winning a bronze medal with her team in the Mixed Relay at World Cup 5. She sums it up with, “I’ve done a lot better than I expected.”

After moving to Utah six years ago to train at the Utah Olympic Oval, the 24-year-old skater has learned a lot about herself, especially when it comes to the mental aspect of competition. Although there are technical components of her skating she’d like to improve, it’s the negative thinking that affects her the most.

“I find I skate better when I’m in a strong group because I can lower my expectations,” she says. “Then I relax and skate better. If I’m going in as a leader, my brain freaks out and I start a spiral of negative thinking. It really psyches me out. I’m being better at trusting myself to control the race.”

Kristen is learning techniques to help combat mental stress. She says the first step is being aware when it happens. Then she stopped researching her competition. Before a race, she’d look up their finishes, their lap times and their accomplishments, which only freaked her out more. She’s stopped doing that.

Training for the Olympics isn’t just tough mentally, the physical workouts can be brutal. Her hardest practice is when USS Head Coach Wilma Boomstra has the team do 30-minute relay drills—twice. However, Kristen has seen huge growth in the team as they’ve become stronger and rely on each other more.

“It’s been phenomenal this year. I think our team gets along really well. I feel very supported. I want to go out and win, but if I don’t win, I want it to be my teammate.”

It was just over a year ago that Kristen was injured right before the 2018 Olympic Trials. She ended up having surgery and was still recovering during the event. She couldn’t even tie her skates. Kristen’s boyfriend of five years, Travis Griswold, stepped up, showing up at every practice and every race to make sure her skates were tied properly.

She skated in the event with no expectations, but ended up in fourth place, just one spot shy of the Olympic team. As she watched the Olympic Games from her home, she understood an important fact.

“I realized, I don’t just want to be physically ready for the Games. Even if I had been selected, I wouldn’t have done well, and I don’t want that. Not only do I want to go to the Olympics, I want to medal. I want to win.”

A lifelong vegetarian and a confirmed animal lover, Kristen has two Huskies, Bear and Koda. To unwind, she likes to hike and make crafts, especially before a race so she can put her nervous energy into something creative. “I just need to do something with my hands.”

Even as the season wraps up, Kristen is looking forward to the 2019-20 season with excitement. She’ll take several weeks off once the last competition is over, but then she’ll be back in May for summer training.

“I’m very nervous for summer training. I expect to die this summer,” she says. “But we need to be stronger and I’m actually looking forward to it. We’re so close to medaling. Every year I improve and I surprise myself.”