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Getting Crafty At Home Helps Kristen Santos Put It All On The Ice

By David Seigerman | Jan. 25, 2021, 1:07 p.m. (ET)

Kristen Santos has her work cut out for her.

Literally. Santos got a Cricut for Christmas, which, as her fellow crafters would know, is true cutting edge technology — a machine that can be programmed with a design or a pattern and then magically cuts it into the Do-It-Yourselfer’s raw material of choice, be it fabric or cardstock, balsa wood or soft leather. 

“It’s a thing that cuts other things precisely,” said Santos, striving to simplify the concept to an artistic Luddite.

During the first month with her new toy, Santos indulged her imagination, creating vinyl stickers and cutting stencils that she used to etch glass. She’d spend her days carving the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval, training with her teammates on the US Speedskating short track national team, then come home to her fiancé, her dogs and her cutting machine. Such is a speed skater’s world in pandemic limbo.

“I force myself to do the kind of things I enjoy and that relax me,” said Santos, an HGTV junkie who after binging episodes of “Fixer Upper” will begin fantasizing about which walls in her home to knock down. “It can’t be a completely mindless activity because then my mind will go elsewhere. For me, meditation doesn’t fully work. I really struggle with just sitting there and letting my mind go blank and sitting in the moment. Instead, I’m sitting there and thinking skating this or skating that, should I be doing dryland right now?” 

That’s where the Cricut and the crafting and the Chip and Joanna-inspired remodeling dreams come in particularly handy. They are more than some downtime distraction for Santos while she awaits word on when and where the next major international competition will be. Instead, they have served as a sort of mindset makeover project for Santos, a calming and decluttering of her thoughts in a way that could provide a cornerstone of her preparations for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, which begin just over a year from now in Beijing.

Santos has long fought to find ways to quiet the restless voice in her mind. It dates back to when she was a kid in Connecticut, fighting with her sister to get ready faster because she felt compelled to be at school 30 minutes ahead of the first bell. The discomforting pressure of feeling “rushed” has manifested itself throughout her skating career. In competitions, that voice might urge her to make an unnecessarily risky move, like trying to pass an opponent in a 1,500-meter race laps before she knows she needs to. And in the wake of an occasional bad day of practice, that voice tends toward catastrophe, undermining Santos with overwrought concerns that she won’t be ready for whatever race is closing in.

“When I’d have a bad day, I’d be like, ‘I’m so bad at skating. I don’t know how to skate.’ And that would drain on me,” said Santos.

But then she looks back on two significant performances, neither of which was she encumbered by expectations, and she sees there is a different way forward.

First, there was the Olympic trials back in 2017. A few weeks before she would have the chance to quality for the PyeongChang Games, Santos was injured during a race in China. Her left hand was sliced by an opponent’s skate, damaging the tendons so badly they required surgery to repair. Santos was unable to tie her own skates or even dress herself with her mummified hand, but she was able to skate in the trials. And she finished fourth, one place shy of a spot on the Olympic roster.

“When I was able to go to and skate, I thought, ‘This is just a bonus. I have absolutely nothing to lose,’ ” Santos said. “At that moment, considering I was not in the best shape after getting surgery, I have a big claw on my hand, but my mentality was so much better. I was so relaxed, I ended up doing just as well as I could have otherwise.”

Then the same thing happened last season. 

In the summer of 2019, Santos was diagnosed with a herniated disk in her back. The prospect of surgery loomed over her season and in her mind as she continued to train, alone on the elliptical or the stair-stepper machines while her teammates were out on the ice, skating laps as Santos was disallowed to do initially. Just before she was to resume skating, she suffered a setback, re-injuring her back during a set of low-weight trap bar deadlifts. 

“When that happened, I hit a really low low,” said Santos, whose pain was so severe she couldn’t raise her arms to feed herself. For a few days, she was barely able to move; her (soon-to-be) fiancé had to carry her around their house. “I thought it was getting better. And then to have the slightest wrong movement bring me down that far. It wasn’t even slightly better. It only felt better because I haven’t moved it at all.”

The day she finally returned to the ice was the day of the trials for the upcoming world cup in Salt Lake City. Unable to do more than a series of slow laps around the track — not even down in a speed skater’s position — Santos could not compete in the trials. But she was given a medical bye to the world cup event, in case she’d be ready to compete a couple of weeks down the road.

Because the event was at her home rink and no travel was required, Santos was able to compete — again, without the anticipatory pressure of having to prepare under a ticking clock. Santos, freed from the burden of expectation, went out and set an American record in the 1,000-meter. Later that month, she traveled to Japan for another world cup, where she finished third in the 1,000, earning her first individual world cup medal. 

“I’ve noticed that every time I go into a competition and not have expectations and not put pressure on myself, I sleep better, I eat better, I’m way more relaxed. My mind is more clear,” Santos said.

So here she is, a little more than a year removed from her world cup bronze, a little more than a year away from the Olympics. She is training with presence and purpose, whether it is focusing her attention on the fundamental mechanics of every foot placement throughout her skating sessions or finding ways to push herself during an hour-long solo run, maybe by covering more miles or adding more climbing to her route.

When she’s not doing that, she’s unplugging from skating, giving her mind over to her crafty cutting endeavors and happy thoughts of home improvement possibilities. All of which, the physical and the mental exercise, is preparing her for what would be the biggest race of her career.

“I’m giving myself as many opportunities as possible right now to try to build that muscle memory, giving myself things to look back on — OK, I skated this well when I felt like this,” Santos said. “I’ve recognized the difference, that when I can let it go, I can bounce back easier. I feel this is going to help me in the future, when I do have that bad day and there’s a competition in a week, I feel like I’m going to be able to say, ‘I know I can let this go, and that tomorrow will be better.’ ”

David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

David Seigerman

David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Kristen Santos

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