The men’s 5000m long track speed skating race is one where finishing positions are often separated by several seconds. As the U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Long Track Speedskating opened yesterday in Milwaukee, the battle between Ethan Cepuran and Casey Dawson was decided by four-hundredths of a second.
In a race that came down to a heart-stopping photo finish, 21-year-old Cepuran from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, out-sprinted his training partner to clinch the first men’s spot for next month's Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Maybe it was the last few weeks of training or a determined motivation to get back on track after the less-than-hoped-for performance at the final world cup of the year last month in Calgary, Alberta, but Cepuran arrived at the starting line with a mindset of believing in himself.
Knowing how well another training partner, Emery Lehman, had just raced, Cepuran stayed focused throughout the 12.5-lap race. Though Dawson held the lead going into the final lap, Cepuran unleashed a burst of speed at the end to finish in 6:16.54, with Dawson following at 6:16.58.
Dawson just edged Lehman’s time of 6:16.71 to clinch the second potential spot. Whether he goes to Beijing will depend on how the rest of the week plays out at the Pettit National Ice Center and how the 10 Olympic berths are split up between the seven men selected for the Olympics.
Those last few laps Cepuran told himself to keep putting in the effort, keep building and stay locked in.
“You can’t die too early. The moment you give up in a 5K you know the race is over,” Cepuran said. “You can’t get it back. I just said, ‘All right, it’s go time.’”
Finishing so close to his training partners and teammates in the team pursuit meant everything to Cepuran. Although they are competitors, the Cepuran, Dawson and Lehman — along with Joey Mantia, who competes later this week — move as one.
“We train together every day. We race each other day. I wouldn’t be out here without them,” Cepuran said.
The foursome in various combinations has had much success in the team pursuit so far this season, with Mantia, Lehman and Dawson combining to set a new world record at the world cup stop in Salt Lake City.
“We push each other to new depths every day,” Cepuran said. “It’s not just the three of us, it’s Joey Mantia also. Two people can support the one person feeling down. I just have to do my job and we can put something together spectacular. I think we’re an absolute unit.”
In addition to his brotherly connection with his Team Pursuit comrades, Cepuran cited the support from his parents and two older brothers.
Mia Manganello-Kilburg competes in the women's 3000m race at the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Long Track Speedskating on Jan. 5, 2022 in Milwaukee.
In a story that could have easily been part of a Hollywood screenplay, Cepuran’s older brother, Gordon, just happened to be the rink announcer at the Pettit center Wednesday evening. Gordon is eight years his senior and has been a role model and a coach to his younger brother in the past.
Wednesday, Cepuran could hear his brother’s booming, familiar voice right before his race.
“It’s kind of funny. Everybody knows my older brother,” Ethan Cepuran said. “It’s awesome to have Gordon here. It’s always awesome to have a familiar voice.”
Manganello-Kilburg Does Her Job, Now Waits
Mia Manganello-Kilburg had two main goals coming into Wednesday’s 3000m race: one was to win the race, which she did, finishing seven seconds ahead of Dessie Weigel. The other was to focus on the race corners and her strategy. Based on her 4.07.61 finish, she’s completed those goals.
For the 2018 Olympic Bronze Medalist, however, there was another less tangible purpose. She needed to fight off the demons roaming in her mind.
If Wednesday’s performance is any indication, she can cross the monster off her list, too.
“I’ve been having a lot of work going into this race mentally,” she said. “I’m physically prepared for this race — but the head is a whole other thing. To get around that for this particular race, it’s really difficult for me. Today, I really feel like I conquered a beast that I’ve been fighting for a while.”
By winning the 3000m, the 32-year-old from Crestview, Florida, clinched the women’s first reserve spot in the race. The first reserve means that if one of the qualifying athletes from a different country drops out, the first reserve will get a chance. Five U.S. women are expected to ultimately compete in Beijing.
While Manganello-Kilburg typically draws inspiration from her friends and family and feels pumped from the aura of the crowd, she saw the positive in a less noisy arena. The Pettit National Ice Center, where the trials continue through Sunday, is without spectators due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
“To be honest, I think it kind of help for me to not have the outside noise,” Manganello-Kilburg said. “To be able to focus on what I needed to focus on. What was in my mind and hearing my coach on the backstretch.
“It benefited my goal for today. I tend to get excited and a bit anxious within the race. Hearing everybody ‘Go! Go! Go!’ It really allowed me stay within myself.”
Hearing the extra encouragement from her coach on the backstretch energized Manganello-Kilburg, and she credited her coach Gabriel Girard for her success today.
The pandemic has taught Manganello-Kilburg to compartmentalize her stress.
After most of the 2020-21 season was canceled, some skaters met in the “Holland Bubble” for a pair of world cups in early 2021. While Manganello-Kilburg did not compete there, she drew lessons from her teammates who did.
It allowed them to be in the quarantine mindset, and to constantly wear masks, adapting to not seeing family and friends.
“Really prioritized the ultimate goal. It’s not new for us. It’s something we’ve been doing for the past two years,” Manganello-Kilburg said. “Luckily our coach has created this mindset. We either stress about it or refocus and get the job done.”