Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Letter To My Younger Self

Before I begin let me explain. If you've never checked out the Player's Tribune you have made a mistake. It's a fantastic website that allows you into the life of athletes in a way that hasn't been done before. One of the feature columns or articles consist of professional athletes writing letter's to ones own self at a younger age. Helping them, guiding them, informing them of the future. So I love it. I want to do it myself. I'm a speed skater, far from the level of professional athlete. I'll probably never have an opportunity to contribute to something like the Player's Tribune so here is my own version. Obviously, I am not retired, or retiring. Right now if I stop skating it would probably be called quitting more than retiring but I want to write this now. Maybe one day I'll have the chance to go back and rewrite a more formal version that can highlight from beginning to end.

Dear Keith,

The last thing you want to do right now is listen to anyone, about anything. You can hear people speaking but you just wish everyone would stop. But if you can find a way, I'm going to give you some advice, let you know what to expect going forward. I'm here to help.

Right now you are sitting down at the Indoor National Championships for speed skating. Over the last year you thought this was your time. Last year you skated well, not well enough to medal overall but you were younger then everyone beating you. This year you would be older and you would be winning. But right now you are sitting down on the floor, head resting on your knees, going over everything that went wrong while tearing up.

You just lost. You just failed to qualify for the final. You've always hated losing. But this time is different. You weren't good enough to compete for a chance to win.

Savior this loss. Before you even realize it, this single moment will shape you into the athlete you become for better and for worse. You are only 14 and nothing gets easier. Life will get hard, then it will get harder. Skating will take you on a roller coaster you couldn't have imagined.

You know at this point in your life that some have it better then others, you know some families don't have to live or struggle like yours. You don't understand how other people's emotions work and how their sacrifices come in to play but one day you will understand. You know right now, your father is upset. You think he's mad at you, and maybe he is a little bit. He wants you to succeed but he wants you to understand how much is sacrificed just for you to have this moment. He wants you to take advantage of it because you might not be able to afford it tomorrow.

He'll get upset enough that he doesn't come to the rink the day of the medal ceremony. After all, it would be a long shot for you to manage to land on the podium at this point. There is still one more distances final to be raced but you didn't qualify for it either and even though you won a distance you failed in the other two. The cards will fall very oddly. That year four skaters make the podium instead of three and you will end up fourth. You don't have your uniform or your skates with you. You call your Dad and just hope he answers the phone because he needs to bring your stuff or you can't even stand on the podium. He does.

You'll go home after this trip. You'll never be short on focus another day of practice in your life. People will tell you that it isn't possible but you have a feeling etched into you that you can't get rid of. You are not a loser. The next season will challenge you mentally and emotionally. Every indoor meet you go to that season you will be winning or skating very well but you will fall down.. every single one.

At home your parents fight. They always have. Usually it's about money. Your dad works as much as possible. He always has. Your mom is on worker's compensation after an injury, you don't know much of the details and you never really will. They sit and try to figure out how to pay the bills. Which one can we afford to make late, how do we pay for the next month of skating. You hear it all but never dare say a word about it. You learned the value of a dollar at a young age.

Based off of last year you didn't set extremely high goals.. you didn't believe in yourself yet. You'll go to jr world trials with your only expectation to not embarrass yourself. Before your first race your coach will do this weird thing in the car, he says its so when you win a medal he won't have too much energy and can act like it isn't a big deal. You feel a lump in your throat, you don't want to let people down but there is no way you can win a medal.

Your coach is a smart man who knows the sport. You'll win a medal, in that very first race. It'll be one of the purest moments of satisfaction,success, and surprise you will ever feel. Before the last distance you are on the cusp of qualifying for the jr world team. It was your goal to accomplish it in another year. Your coach tells you that you can decide your fate. If you go out and win the race you will make the team. If you lose, you go home. You lose again. It's bittersweet. On one hand you performed so much higher then you imagined but you still feel like you failed.

In a month you will go to indoor nationals just hoping not to fall down. You'll walk away that weekend as a national champion. You'll set three national records that weekend. You'll finally feel a little redemption.

After you get back your parents will split up, your dad moves out. All of your siblings, including you stay at home with your mom. Shortly after that you'll break your collarbone in two spots during a race. You'll skate 11 miles with a broken collarbone because you are not a loser. You'll stand on the podium as the winner of a season of outdoor races broken collarbone and all.. then you will go to hospital.

You grew up thinking your mom was great, she was always there at home while your Dad was at work. Over your childhood years, probably not intentionally, she will make you think less of your dad then you ever should have. Over the next year you'll start seeing your mom less. First she won't be home to cook dinner. Then she won't be home at all. When you get up for school she'll still be sleeping. When she gets up she'll be in her own world. You know she's fallen back into her old ways. She's an alcoholic. You don't know anything about drugs and how to identify if someone is on them but you think it's more then alcohol. Then she'll just stop coming home. You'll go days without seeing her. You are a smart kid so you learned how to cook but inside you are livid that your thirteen year old brother is without a mother to care for him. When winter comes around the heat is shut off. Your electricity too. You drive without a drivers license, to the grocery store to get food for home. You tell your brother it will be okay.

You'll make the decision to move out. You and your brother are going to stay with your dad. You won't even tell your mom you are leaving. She'll see the uhaul outside she'll come out to ask what is going on and you will tell her. She will cry, she will say she doesn't understand, there is a slur to her words. You will barely say a word, you will show no sympathy. This will be the last time you speak to the woman you thought would always be there for you and your siblings. You won't hold a grudge, you will forgive. But you will believe in surrounding yourself with people that are good for you and she won't fit the mold.

Skating takes off for you. Sponsors begin calling. You'll hurt your back before your next jr world trials and have to skate without being in the best shape but you will make the team. A former world team coach will tell you that you didn't deserve to make the team. She'll come up to you, introduce herself and then say you didn't deserve it. You go home, and train a minimum twice a day. Three times a day, whatever it takes. When worlds comes around you aren't skating like someone that barely made the team. That same coach will tell you they were wrong. You'll skate a relay and then call your coach that night. You'll tell him, "Jeff we did it, we won a silver medal."

A respected member of the skating community will publicly say your indoor national title the previous year was a fluke. He'll guarantee you can't win again. But you will. You'll lose the first race and then lead every lap the rest of the competition and you will win. Think about what I just told you. You'll lead every lap, 1500m, and win. Right now you can't imagine yourself ever having the endurance to win a longer race.

Skating will continue to go well. Money will continue to not go well. At one point you'll be taking change to a coin collecting machine in Walmart just to scrounge up enough money to pay the entry fee for nationals for you and your brother.

You don't know yet but you want to transition to ice. But you tell yourself you need to win an individual medal at the inline world championships first. You weigh your options heavily and try to decide what is right. After high school you get a full time job at Target, you work your way up to a department manger. Then a year later you decide its time even though that medal never came. You move, along with your girlfriend, all the way to Utah to tackle a dream. You move into a house with 4 other skaters, some big time names. Joey Mantia, Josh Wood, Justin Stelly, Hank Gailbraith. It's a big house and pretty cheap.

You have a little income but not much. Finding a job for you and Sam turns out to be a little harder then you expected. You'll struggle for awhile but get by. You'll excel on the ice very quickly. After a year you and Sam will move in with Jake Powers in a cool townhouse and you'll get two dogs to call your own. They are funny creatures.. absolutely nothing like you can currently imagine.

The whole time you are in Utah you'll work a full time job along with your skating commitments. You are the only guy working full time all year round. You are a senior manager at Target now. You skate all morning long, lift weights, run, bike, do dry land exercises, and then work all night. Some times you will go weeks with no more then 6 hours of sleep a night. You'll work overnights occasionally and then go to practice. One common theme will always be repeated to you, how do you do it. The first time someone asks it catches you by surprise. You never thought of it that way. You've always knew that skating was a privilege not an entitlement and that you had to work in life for things you wanted. You just start telling people when you have no other choice you have to do it.

Most of your time on ice will be riddled with scandal. Everything about this sport spells drama. You'll  get invited to skate with the national racing program and a coach that is everything you could want. He'll turn you from an inliner with knives on their feet into a short track speed skater. He'll get you to a high level in just one summer but you won't pickup on the racing side of the sport. You'll keep falling just barely short of the world cup team. They will keep telling you its because of your lack of experience. You'll get mad at your self. How can you falter at the exact thing you thrived at on inlines? You'll qualify for the 2014 Olympic trials. You won't be a favorite but you are a small threat. You'll fail and it will make you contemplate quitting. But you have never quit anything and you are not a loser.

The next year after the entire men's Olympic team chooses not to return to the sport you qualify for both world cup teams and world championships. You won't be allowed to work with your coach. He can't give you a training program and he can't help you at world cups. The following year you won't be allowed to skate for him. You'll be devastated. It's your career that is being hindered and no one will seem to care. But you are a resilient and smart guy. You'll pull from the very moment you find yourself at right now, you will remember that utter disgusting feeling and decide you cannot be a loser and you will go back to work. And the rest has yet to be written.

Take care of yourself kid and most importantly remember that you achieve nothing if you don't work hard at everything, every single day.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In order to get where you are going, you have to remember where you've been.

When I had a chance to visit home my reason for making the trip was to get my mold done for my new boots. I've had 1 pair of boots since I switched over to ice and it had been some time and I thought it was the right time to get a new pair. Turns out my feet are a little different now then they were then so it was a good idea.

Anyway, I had the all important decision of trying to figure out my color scheme for my boots. My old pair I had this super out-of-this-world scheme and then I ditched it for an all black pair with yellow logos (i got nervous). This time I wanted to do something a little different but I struggled with what to do. White looks nice, but scuffing it up looks bad and I am that type of skater so I scratched that idea.

What I ended up doing means a lot to me and where I have been and I am glad I made that decision because not a day will go by that I will ever forget that. I've written a number of times about the journey.. about being just a little kid that wanted to skate and how terrible I was for like three solid years and then something clicked. Then I was all business. It was all skating all the time and I wanted to be the best I could everyday at every thing. What you do as a child can easily mold you as an adult and thats a concept that holds true for me.

So, I spent my childhood inlining like most of you already know. And I wouldn't be an ice skater, let alone short track, or be in the position I am today without that and whether or not I ever compete on my wheels again I will never forget that. More importantly I spent my days at the roller rink I visited in my last post. Skateaway in Shillington, PA. I left a lot at that rink. Time, sweat, blood, tears, struggles, success, wins, losses, everything. Without that rink I'm not me, plain and simple. Then at that rink I spent that time as a part of the SOS Speed Team. I wore that skin suit proudly and I loved my team and my environment and it means the world to me still. I can recall tons of races from start to finish still. I can walk in that rink and relive some tough days mentally, physically, and emotionally. I can remember some of the talks the team had and I still take a lot of that stuff to heart. I recently wrote an essay about me, about my history with inline and my struggles through it all and what I believe and what has molded me as an athlete and person. Almost every piece of that essay came from my time on that team and in that rink.

Anyway, every time I achieve something on the ice. I still wish I had that uniform on to wear it proudly because I stopped skating for just me a long time ago. Now I skate for me and I also skate for everyone that's helped me through the years and there has been a ton of us. Every time I workout or race I have so many memories with me. One of the things I've been asked is what would it mean to achieve success and to mean it will always mean we've done it together, all of us.

So with all of that being said, my boots that I just got in the mail today have a color scheme I am very proud to wear. This is probably the last pair of short track skates I will ever get as they will last me through the Olympic season in 2018 and if I'm able to make it and have that opportunity I am proud and glad to say I'll be wearing these colors. It means a lot to me that every practice I have now I can always look down and have a little something extra to help me get through it.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Where the road may go

started planning last year when I would get a pair of new skates. I knew this year was when I needed to get the ball rolling. So, when I found out that I needed to make a trip to the Marchese Racing shop I decided to sandwich it around two days at home. The last time I visited Pennsylvania was November 2012 when a race I was attending in Ohio was cancelled so I spent the time home.

I kept myself pretty busy, flew in red-eye so I would have the rest of Tuesday at home and I ended up visiting an inline practice at the rink I spent years chasing dreams and checking off goals.

Wednesday I made my trip to the shop to get molded and really enjoyed seeing the process of boots being made. I'm a huge nerd with that stuff. I was so focused on everything going on and asking questions I didn't even end up taking a single photo. Oh well.
Thursday I visited some of my siblings and their children that basically couldn't remember me because they were so little last time I was here.

It was a trip I'm ultimately glad I made.

But mostly I want to focus on that first photo for today. Fourteen or fifteen years ago my family, already speed skating for a few years, switched to a rink further away for multiple reasons at the time. But as small of a change it was, it would have seemed impossible then that I would be where I am today.

Visiting that rink a couple of days ago really brought me back to a time I didn't even know I remembered. My first day I ever stepped into that rink. I was a small, scrawny, quiet nine year old that nodded his head instead of speaking and would do anything you told him to do. It was a fall practice after nationals so everything was back to the basics and we did circle laps. I watched the family of kids that were way better then me but all around my age. I didn't think I would ever be a regional, national, world, or olympic champion.. I just wanted to skate. 

I went through some really tough times at that rink on and off the skates over the years. Something I still believe and follow today is that our coaches would always say when you walk in that door all of your problems or issues will still be there when you walk back out so you might as well forget them for a few hours. Skating was an outlet for me for so many years.

I remember one year I struggled the whole season. Fell down at every indoor meet. Went to jr world team trials and just ever so barely missed making the team. I had a month or two before indoor nationals and like so many Wednesday nights, I would end up staying late and talking with my coach. I had a tough season, nationals would be my final race  of the year and I wanted to beat everyone that made the team instead of me and I wanted to stay on my feet. We were talking about what I needed to do to get on the podium. I stopped, and said all I want to do is win, getting on the podium wasn't enough. Somehow I won that year.

My favorite practices were always the days no one wanted to be at practice. For whatever reason, somehow everyone will end up sluggish on the same day. Maybe it's a crappy day outside and that's just the days vibe. Those rare days I didn't want to give 100% were my favorite because I knew no one wanted to.. So I would fight myself and truly force myself to give it everything I had. I always told myself those were the days that I would catch up to my competitors.

People say you have to remember where you are from and what you've been through in order to get where you are going.