The names are forever part of American lore, transcending the sport of Olympic speedskating: Eric Heiden. Bonnie Blair. Dan Jansen.
Wait. What? Who in the world is KC Boutiette?
You’re forgiven if you don’t recognize the name. But Boutiette — a skater from Tacoma, Wash., who never won an Olympic medal — was a revolutionary. He changed the sport forever in 1993 when he swapped his inline wheels for ice blades.
Boutiette blazed the trail High Point’s Heather Richardson has followed to the Sochi Games.
“It’s a huge trend in the sport, and it started with KC,” said Jansen, a four-time Olympian from Wisconsin who has settled in Mooresville. “He was really the first inliner to make the move to ice and have real success, making the U.S. team for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. Since then, it’s a trend that’s kept growing. And Heather is part of that trend.”
She’s not alone.
Chad Hedrick started on wheels and won five Olympic medals — tied with Heiden, one behind Blair for most ever by an American — and teammate Joey Cheek of Greensboro won three. Two-time medalists Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez also started on inline skates.
In Sochi, Richardson is one of 17 skaters on the U.S. long-track team. Eight of them are former inliners. On the U.S. short-track team, seven out of eight were inliners.
“It’s great for the sport,” said Jansen, who will work as an analyst on NBC’s broadcast in Sochi. “Frankly, we struggle for numbers in speedskating. With inliners making the switch, it widens the talent pool, it widens the numbers, and it widens the reach of the sport to places in the South that don’t have access to ice. When I was growing up, there was really only one Olympic-caliber track in the whole country (Milwaukee), so the talent pool was mostly Midwesterners. Well, there are plenty of athletes who aren’t from the Midwest.”
And most of them are on roller skates.
To the untrained eye, speedskating on wheels and on ice looks pretty much the same.
It is not.
“You would think it would be super easy to go from inline to ice,” Richardson said. “But after the first two weeks (in Utah), I was ready to come home. It was so hard, and I was so discouraged.”
Richardson was already a world champion inline skater when she turned 18 and graduated from High Point Central in 2007. But she wanted to be an Olympian, and there is no Olympic Games for inliners.
“I knew Joey Cheek and definitely looked up to him,” Richardson said. “He made the transition (to ice), and Derek Parra did the exact same thing. I might not be doing this if not for them.”
Richardson found Parra’s fledgling Wheels to Ice Program (WhIP), a partnership between U.S. Speedskating and USA Roller Sports.
Or, rather, WhIP found her.
Parra approached Richardson after watching her skate at a Thanksgiving inline meet in Greensboro.
“He asked if I’d ever done ice. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve raced on ice before.’ I had done one race on ice in like 2004,” Richardson said. “I’m pretty sure he went back to look that up to see if I was telling the truth. Anyway, he’s the one who convinced me to come out to Utah and give it a try. … I graduated from high school that year and decided to move.”
Richardson arrived in Salt Lake City with a whole lot to learn.
“When I first got here, my skate would slide across the ice and make an awful screeching sound,” Richardson said. “I kept asking my coaches, ‘What am I doing wrong? How do I get that to stop?’ They said to just keep working. It felt like forever, but after a few weeks on the ice you could hear it gliding and crunching the way it’s supposed to.”
Four months after making the switch, she made the U.S. World Cup team. She was a surprise Olympian in 2010, making the U.S. team for the Vancouver Games.
She finished sixth in the 500 meters, ninth in the 1,000 and 16th in the 1,500.
And she’s gotten better and better since then, working closely with coach Ryan Shimabukuro for six years.
“The technique to go fast on inlines and ice is different. It looks the same, but the timing is completely different,” Shimabukuro said. “Some pick it up pretty fast as long as they can be patient and humble in the process. The inliners who come over ready to learn do the best. Heather has always been eager to learn.”
What works in inline skating doesn’t necessarily work on ice.
Yet old habits are hard to break.
Watch Richardson at the start of her races. She crouches with an arm held out for balance. It’s different — most speedskaters start upright — but it’s a throwback to her inline days.
“I’m still uncomfortable when I run at the start,” Richardson said, “because even after all this time, it still feels weird. It’s a balance thing. You can’t be too much on your toes, because then you’re too far forward and could fall. And you can’t be too far back, because then you lose too much speed.”
Once she hits her stride, Richardson still retains some of her old inline form.
“It’s something as simple as arm swing,” Richardson said. “Before, my arm swings were all over the place. Some people would say they’re still all over the place, but I’ve worked on keeping my left shoulder down a little more. I tend to twist my upper body a lot, and that makes you lose pressure on the ice, which makes you lose speed.
“My technique has come a long, long ways. I was unorthodox. Every skater has their own style, and I still don’t do what most skaters do. But I’m starting to blend in a little more.”
Shannon Shuskey, who coached Richardson as an inline skater in High Point, sees the little mechanical flaws and dismisses them.
“I take a lot of pride in teaching technique. I tried and I tried and I tried,” Shuskey said. “But even Olympic-level coaches haven’t changed her much, either. The bottom line is she places her skates in the right position, whether her hips are outside-of-center or not. Doesn’t matter. She’s fast. She can put down some power.”
The key, Shuskey said, is Richardson has an intangible that cannot be taught.
“She’s quiet,” Shuskey said. “She doesn’t say much and would never dream of talking back to a coach. But then you put her on the starting line and she’s like a tiger.”
Inline vs. ice
Richardson’s success, and the success of her teammates, guarantees the inline-to-ice trend will continue.
Truth is, inlines are more accessible than ice. There are only four long-track ice facilities in the United States — Milwaukee, Lake Placid, N.Y., Roseville, Minn., and Kearns, Utah — and it’s more expensive to practice on ice than it is on wheels.
Without an Olympic destination, the inline skating world has become a reluctant training ground for the Winter Games.
“We’ve lost all of our truly top inline skaters to ice,” Shuskey said. “… At our (inline) world championships, we’ll have over 50 countries represented. On ice at the Olympics, it’s not even close to that.”
Inline worlds have drawn as many as 57 countries. Last year in Belgium, 429 skaters from 51 countries competed.
There have never been more than 180 skaters or 25 countries represented at a single Winter Games. Only three countries — U.S., Canada and Norway — have sent speedskaters to all 21 Olympics held since 1924. But the siren song of the Olympics tugs hard on the inline world.
It drew Boutiette.
Cheek heard the music in Greensboro, and he won a gold medal.
And now Richardson is in Sochi, chasing her own medal.
“When Heather came over, she was focusing on 2014,” Shimabukuro said. “She didn’t expect to be a member of the 2010 team. But we had her on a fast track and got her on the international level quick.
“It’s a meteoric rise, really. She’s taken what she’s learned from inlining and applied it to the ice. A lot try. Only some are successful. She’s one of the best to have made the transition.”