Weird winter doesn’t melt speedskaters’ goalsRICK LUBBERS: While many of us were basking in balmy March temperatures, Andrey Zhuikov was watching the speedskating oval at Chester Bowl turn to soup.
By: Rick Lubbers, Duluth News Tribune
Andrey Zhuikov is not a fan of early springs.
While many of us were basking in balmy March temperatures, Zhuikov was watching the speedskating oval at Chester Bowl turn to soup.
An already challenging season for the Duluth Area Speedskating Club was abruptly cut short.
“This winter we only skated six practices at Chester Bowl,” said Zhuikov, who added that the 2011-12 winter wrought the least-favorable speedskating conditions since he began coaching in Duluth in 1997. A home meet was even canceled the second weekend of February. “The kids did their best and tried to improve every race. But we needed ice.”
Since Mother Nature was a bit stingy with ice, the club rented time on Minnesota Duluth’s on-campus ice sheet and practiced indoors.
“I’m really proud of these kids; they never gave up,” Zhuikov said. “It was a pretty good season. They did the best with what they had. I cannot control the weather.”
The Northland’s recently fickle winters have carved into the speedskating club’s numbers. Zhuikov said he had a stable of nearly 30 speedskaters about seven years ago, but that has dwindled to about a dozen this past season.
“Last year we lost about eight really good kids,” he said.
Many of the Twin Ports’ other winter offerings can be tempting to speedskaters when they are spending the bulk of their time working to flood and prep a rink or taking part in extended dryland training. They want to skate.
But despite a woeful lack of practice time and competing against athletes from high-tech training facilities, the club’s faithful remnant enjoyed a successful season. Two of the fastest were Haley Paulson, 16, and Hayden Norris, 17.
Paulson, who has competed since first grade, took third all-around at the U.S. Long Track Pack Nationals in her age group and also claimed a top 10 finish at the Great Lakes Long Track Speedskating Championships at Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center.
Norris set fire to the ice as well, recording personal bests in every race this past season. He caught the speedskating bug from watching it on the Olympics as an eighth-grader.
But even as well as they performed in their races, they can’t help but wonder how high they could have finished had Duluth been blessed with a healthy blast of polar air.
“You go to competitions and you feel really out of shape and not as good as the others,” Paulson said.
“The people that you race against skate pretty much every day,” Norris said. “They are a lot better for the time they put in.”
But Zhuikov’s biggest goals for the club’s skaters haven’t melted with the ice.
“I would like to see skaters who grew up in Duluth skate in the Olympics,” he said.
Anna Ringsred, one of Zhuikov’s first local skaters, is getting back to the sport after taking a couple of years off. She and her brother, Miles, now in their 20s, train in Calgary in hopes of making an Olympic team and putting Duluth speedskating on the map.
Duluth native Hannah Curwin shares that sentiment, and she’s currently a sophomore at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. When she’s not hitting the books at the Haskayne school of business, Curwin has her sights set on qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
That’s 668 days away.
“Hannah does have the potential to be there in the 3,000 and 5,000 (meters),” Zhuikov said. “She has improved a lot in the 3,000 this year.”
Curwin hones her skills at Calgary’s Olympic Oval (which is immune from warm winters) from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays through Saturdays and then hustles to classes from noon to 3 p.m. On a handful of days, she spends two to three hours doing off-ice exercises. She does take Sundays off.
“Not the standard college life, that’s for sure,” Curwin said by phone recently. “It’s pretty draining, but speedskating is my job, I’m just not paid to do it.”
The hectic schedule is paying off. Curwin’s skills earned her a trip to face the world’s top junior speedskaters in Obihiro, Japan, last month. She placed 13th in the 3,000 out of 36 competitors at the Junior World Championships and 11th in the 3,000 and 12th in the 1,500 at the Junior World Cup Final. She also skated the team pursuit, with the U.S. women placing fourth.
“The experience was one of the highlights of my season,” she said. “I loved skating in Obihiro — a town where speedskating is one of the most popular sports. I look forward to competing more on behalf of USA in the years to come.”
Curwin and her family moved from St. Paul to Duluth when she was 7 years old, but she was a figure skater at the time. A cousin eventually talked her into switching disciplines. She has been coached by Zhuikov ever since.
“I was the classic story of not wanting to wear frilly dresses; I just wanted to skate fast,” she said.
Curwin played soccer and ran track while attending Duluth Marshall, but speedskating soon became her first love.
“I had found my niche,” she said. “Ever since I was about 15 or 16 years old, I started realizing that I could go far in this sport. I never once doubted that this was the right decision — to put my focus solely on this sport.”
But she insists that focus won’t consume her life. In her scant free time, Curwin tries to engage in other activities. Whether it’s teaching Sunday school at her church, singing in the choir or shaking the rust off her piano skills, Curwin wants to stay balanced.
“It’s easy to let it become my everything,” she said.
Still, it’s tempting to think about the Olympic possibilities as she graduates from the junior level and plunges into her 20s.
“It’s two years until the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, and my goal is becoming very, very real as far as my time and competition, where the other girls are at and where I need to be in two years. That makes me that much more anxious to train harder, buckle down and get it done.”
And buckle down she has.
“My coach always knew I had that potential and my parents thought it was a possibility,” she said. “It wasn’t until this fall that I realized it, too. I took a huge chuck of time off my personal best, which is the only way to gauge your improvement in this sport.”
In her best distance, the 3,000 meters, Curwin’s times plummeted like a bad week on the stock market. A 4:26.00 personal best became 4:22.07 and then 4:20.12. If that trend continues, her ticket to Sochi will be punched.
“I have many, many seconds to shave off my time yet,” she said, “but I am confident that I am on the right track.”
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at email@example.com or (218) 723-5317.