Winter Olympics: Duluth speedskater Ringsred is back at the start lineStanding at the start line of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials 3,000-meter race in Milwaukee, Anna Ringsred admits she did what no speedskater should do: She froze.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Standing at the start line of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials 3,000-meter race in Milwaukee, Anna Ringsred admits she did what no speedskater should do: She froze.
The Duluth native ended up skating her worst 3,000 in a long time and failed to qualify for her first Winter Olympics.
“I was the favorite going into the Olympic Trials that year, but I choked,” she said. “I never had worked on the mental side of the sport — I thought I could take care of it. I thought, ‘It’s easy, just tell yourself that you’re not nervous.’ I tried that, but it didn’t work. I got really nervous and stiff, and once you get stiff the race is over.”
Disheartened, Ringsred hung up her skates for 18 months. She finished her degree in chemical engineering at the University of Calgary, went backpacking in Europe, learned to cross-country ski — anything but lacing up her speed skates.
Spartans Controls in Calgary, Alberta, hired her full time to work as an engineer. After about three months in that position, the 2003 Duluth Marshall graduate felt speedskating tugging at her heartstrings. She turned to several veteran coaches to assist in a comeback but all laughed her off, she said.
“I decided to pick it up again even though it was completely illogical,” she said. “Many people told me what I was doing was ridiculous. No one’s done that — nobody has a career and tries to skate at this level. But I felt like I needed to try one last time.”
Two-and-a-half years later, in December, the 29-year-old Ringsred was back at the start line for the same race at the 2014 Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah. This time, nerves didn’t factor in as she skated the race of her life and finished second to qualify for the Sochi Games.
She will compete in the 3,000 on Sunday morning in the first women’s speed skating event in Sochi, Russia (4:30 a.m. NBC Sports Network).
Ringsred excelled as youth
under Zhuikov’s tutelage
Ringsred grew up in the Woodland neighborhood, playing T-ball, softball and soccer.
At age 13, after breaking an ankle ski jumping at Chester Bowl, she was looking for a new sport to try and saw an ad in the News Tribune seeking speed skaters.
She signed up and, under the tutelage of recent Russian émigré Andrey Zhuikov, began competing on a 400-meter oval near the Irving fields in West Duluth.
“Andrey took me under his wing and thought I had talent, so he encouraged my parents to drive me to these regional races,” Rinsgred said via Skype from a hallway in the Olympic Village last Friday, one day after arriving in Sochi.
The closest meets were in Roseville, Minn., and she traveled to Milwaukee once a year. Soon she was one of the top racers in her age group and the trips became a weekly routine.
But all the practice exacted a price for a teenager who also participated in cross country, track and soccer at Marshall and excelled in the classroom. During her junior year, she began to have second-thoughts and wondered if it was worth spending her weekends on the ice.
“I was young and I saw all my friends going out, and I could never do that because I had to get up so early on Saturday,” she said. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ But I was too scared of telling Andrey that I wasn’t going to do it, so I kept doing it. If it wasn’t for him, I would have quit that year.”
It was the first time her thoughts turned to quitting, but not the last.
“By my senior year, I wasn’t doing it for him anymore,” she said. “I was doing it for myself.”
Her father, Eric, could see the progression she made with Zhuikov as her coach.
“It was a marriage made in heaven,” Eric Ringsred said before departing for Sochi. “Andrey is one of the most incredible youth coaches that you’ll ever see, whether it’s soccer, skating or track. He has a God-given gift with children.”
His daughter realized she had a chance to make the U.S. junior team, so upon graduating from Marshall she spurned an opportunity to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and moved to Calgary. She trained twice a day, six days a week in western Canada and made enough strides on the oval to qualify for the Junior World Championships.
“I made big leaps and bounds that year and I started to enjoy it,” she said. “I wanted to see how far I could take it. The Olympics wasn’t a dream right off the bat. I didn’t think I would ever have a chance at that so I concentrated on little steps.”
Those included qualifying for the World Cup circuit and being invited to train with the U.S. national team in Salt Lake City. That decision, however, turned out to be a huge setback.
Training with U.S. Team
It was there at the U.S. training facility in Kearns, Utah, in 2006-07, where Ringsred lost her love of the sport and again teetered on quitting.
She transferred to the University of Salt Lake City and trained with the U.S. team, whose officials, Ringsred said, discouraged her academic pursuits. Overtraining led to an injury and an icy reception followed from skating officials and athletes alike.
“It was a dark time in my past,” she said. “The team was not very friendly. I feel they went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome. It was a hostile environment … I really felt like an outsider.”
That attitude is anathema to the loquacious and affable Ringsred, who normally is quick to make friends on the skating circuit.
“She loves this sport and she loves the international athletic scene,” her father said. “When Anna gets out at these World Cup events, she’s like a goodwill ambassador for the United States. She’s so well-liked and so supportive of the kids from all the different countries.”
Her times didn’t improve while at Salt Lake, either, and the pay she received barely covered expenses.
“I had such a terrible experience that I was going to quit,” she remembered. “It felt like a job at that point. It dawned on me, ‘I’m not having fun, I’m not enjoying this whatsoever.’
“I was thinking, ‘If I hate it this much, I might as well go work at McDonald’s. I’d be getting paid more.’ So I decided either to try it one more time in Calgary or quit.”
Ringsred learned to love speed skating again in Calgary, though she says it took a year to recover from the psychological damage she experienced in Salt Lake City.
Still, she improved on her own to the point where she came to the start of that 3,000 in Milwaukee as a favorite to reach the 2010 Olympics. Then the nerves kicked in.
“It was really a disappointment,” Eric Ringsred said. “That’s the psychological part of the sport. She said, ‘You can tell yourself all you want not to be nervous’ — you can say it to yourself for two days before the race — but when four years of training breaks down to one race on one day, try not to be nervous.”
Ringsred barely missed qualifying in all her events, becoming an Olympic alternate and not competing in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Training on her own leads
to qualifying for Olympics
By that point, a disillusioned Ringsred was ready to move on with life. The rigors of non-stop training and competition left her stressed and worn out.
“Skating is a very restrictive lifestyle,” she said. “It’s not just a job. A job you can come home and do whatever you want with your evenings. With us, you can’t do that. You can’t go out with your friends and have a beer or chicken wings — you have to eat healthy. You can’t go hiking or anything physical because you could get injured. It really takes over your life. After so many years of doing it, you think, ‘I can’t live like this forever.’”
After finishing college and returning from her European vacation, Ringsred was hired full time by Spartan Controls. But she couldn’t shake those pangs of returning to an oval. When no one else believed in her, she turned to Zhuikov.
“About two-and-a-half years ago, when she was talking retirement and taking a long break, she asked me, ‘Do you think I’m able to get back and be competitive the way I used to be?’” Zhuikov said recently. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Zhuikov set up a flexible schedule and traveled to Calgary a half-dozen times to supervise her training. Ringsred practiced at 6 in the morning and again in the evening after work.
“The results came back pretty quick — she made it in the first year to the World Cup and World Championships,” Zhuikov said.
Eventually the firm allowed her to reduce her hours, which meant Ringsred could train more vigorously. She usually skated alongside provincial-level male skaters — not Olympic-caliber athletes — except for fellow Duluthian Hannah Curwin. Essentially serving as her own coach, Ringsred did what few others were able to do.
“I’ve always been an outcast and done things my way,” she said. “I like being on my own; I feel it gives me a bit more control over what I’m doing.”
Spartan Controls eventually granted her a leave of absence and Ringsred returned to the World Cup circuit last fall. Though most of her previous training had been geared to the 1,000 and 1,500, Ringsred focused on the 3,000 for the World Cup meets.
“I ended up zeroing in on that event,” she said. “I still believed that the 1,000 and 1,500 were going to be my races, but I guess my body was telling me something different.”
That gave her a foundation to be strong in the 3,000 at the Trials, Zhuikov said. Ringsred ended up finishing second by 4.14 seconds to good friend Jilleanne Rookard and making the U.S. team.
Those earlier days of feeling isolated from the rest of the U.S. skating community were over. A new group of coaches and teammates didn’t give her the cold shoulder.
“So many tears were shed and so many people came up and congratulated me,” she said. “Of all the skaters, they said they were happiest for me that I made it. It was really heartwarming to see that support. It turned around 180 (degrees).”
Ringsred glad to have
Ringsred became ill shortly after qualifying in the 3,000 and it affected her in failed attempts at the 1,000 and 1,500. She felt run down and barely slept the next three weeks but felt better once the team spent a week training on an outdoor oval in Italy.
“I put in some really good times on that slow ice in Italy, so I’m excited to see how that’s going to translate here in Sochi,” she said. “Things are looking good.”
Ringsred, who once favored the shorter races, has cut out all sprints in training and is working on endurance only. For the first time in her career, she’s focused on a single race.
“I’m excited to see how fast I can go when I specialize in one event,” she said.
While in Italy, the U.S. team received their racing uniforms and outfits for tonight’s Opening Ceremony. That’s the moment it all began to set in, Ringsred said.
“When I walked into the team processing center and a banner said, ‘Welcome Team USA’ and I started putting on the Opening Ceremonies garb, that’s when it started to feel real,” she said. “I was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s actually going to happen.’”
And now, despite several near-retirements, Sunday’s race may not be her swan song after all. Ringsred has been in discussions about skating for a professional team in Europe next year.
Whatever the future holds, medal or no medal, Ringsred is glad to have continued skating. In so doing, she gained a new perspective on the sport and on life.
“I was doing it (before) because I felt like I had to do it, but coming back this time I really enjoyed it,” she said. “After working, I realized how lucky I was to be doing this.”