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Speedskating clubs find ways to cope during the pandemic

May 01, 2020, 3:20 p.m. (ET)

As COVID-19 brought an abrupt end to the speedskating season, coaches and athletes found themselves disconnected. Short track skaters were especially hit hard as the Short Track Age Group Nationals were canceled.

So how are athletes and coaches around the country dealing with this unprecedented crisis? What are some ways this pandemic is bringing people closer than before? What kind of creative problem-solving is happening at the club level?

Tony Liu, President of Garden State Speed Skating in New Jersey, has asked himself these questions since the end of March. He understands the value of connecting to his athletes, especially with shelter-in-place orders. He wants to help them make the best of the situation and come out the other side a better and stronger team.

“Keeping connected appeared to be very beneficial, especially for the children,” Liu said. “In early April, we set up a Zoom meeting. After that connection many parents said their children’s mood was better and they were more motivated. Like anything, persistence and continuation are important.”

The GSS team has used remote Zoom training since the beginning of April, even when April would normally be an “off” month, and other clubs around the country are doing the same. GSS Strength and Conditioning Coach Rafal Kazanecki said athletes have stayed dedicated to the sport and the club, and find motivation to stay on track.

“It is a hard test for all of us,” he said, “but despite of it, we are still a team. Working hard and looking into the future has been GSS’s motto before, and now it’s even more meaningful than ever. It’s proven every day and every training session.”

US Speedskating’s Events and Programs Director Marion Wohlrab said this downtime is a great opportunity to create guidelines for a team culture by outlining what you want to stand for, how to work together and what values and behaviors the athletes and coaches should bring to the table.

She challenges clubs to get creative with what they can offer their teams during this time. Using online platforms, coaches can issue fun challenges, offer classes on goal setting, start a book club, host a skate sharpening course, share motivational quotes and help families budget for the upcoming season.

“I think one way these Zoom calls have benefited for us is that it keeps us active,” said skater Katherine Liu (16). “It can be very hard to stay motivated, especially during this time. It’s so easy to just go lay on the couch and watch TV, but with these Zoom calls, it allows us to get up and get moving while connecting with our team.”

In Roseville, Minnesota, Olympian Nick Pearson works as the Program Director for the Midway Speedskating Club. The pandemic hit the country right after the Long Track Age Group Nationals concluded at the Roseville Oval, at the end of February.

From a club standpoint, the timing couldn’t have been better. Athletes and coaches had entered the off-season and are now using this time for planning and creating a budget for the 2020-2021 season.

“We don’t know when things will open back up or when the stay at home orders and social distancing will be lifted,” Pearson said. “It’s hard to know what camps and competitions we will be able to attend and what money we may have to help support those events. Our biggest concern is for the health and well-being of our skaters and their families. We want to make sure that whatever decisions we make with regards to the club do not put any of our members at risk.”

Pearson said that although the pandemic has been horrific, he believes there are lessons to be learned from the experience, including the ability to appreciate the time with friends and family.

“What we wouldn’t give to get to spend time with our friends again,” he said, “but we need to cherish these moments we're locked up with our families. We may look back on these times being quite thankful for them.”

Another lesson he has learned is how people find new ways to communicate, both socially and in work environments. “We are able to get a lot more accomplished than I ever thought we could have remotely. Although we don’t get the same one-on-one interaction, we are making do with the situation in front of us. Things may look a lot different in the coming months due to the changes we have made to our daily work routines.”

On the other side of the country, in Southern California, Ron Halcrow is the President of the Santa Clarita Speed Skating Club. As the founder of the club, Halcrow is fearful that COVID-19 will be a final death blow to the club.

The club’s primary training center, for the past 20 years, is the Ice Station Valencia. The rink was pushed into an insurmountable financial wall in April and the owner has decided to permanently close the venue, potentially selling it to be converted into office or warehouse space.

“There remains a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding what the availability [of ice rinks] will be on the other side of the Covid-19 lockdown,” Halcrow said. “There may be limited ice available on the other side of the county in Paramount, CA, after the pandemic, maybe once or twice a month is all I am being told.”

Possible alternative locations for the Santa Clarita Club are too far away for most of the team to travel on a regular basis and Halcrow fears that unless someone steps up to manage a new club in the area, the sport could very well die in Southern California.

“Where the sport will be standing after the lifting of the "safer at home'" orders, therefore, looks grim,” he said. “Our club is now essentially disbanded, albeit alive in name, and I see no action to form another club by anyone somewhere else in SoCal.”

As we move through this “new normal” together, the US Speedskating staff continues to look for ways to support clubs, athletes, coaches and families during this time, and is currently planning for the 2020-2021 season and the virtual USS Congress, May 28-30, 2020.