The country’s top speedskaters put aside challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the absence of fans, with record-breaking performances and intensely entertaining races at the U.S. Olympic Long Track Trials held over five days at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee.
A high COVID-19 infection rate in the area led to a last-minute decision to prohibit fans from attending the trials in person but a national television audience took in the action on all five days, which included a stellar pair of races by Kewaskum’s Jordan Stolz, a 17-year-old rapidly rising star who made his first Olympic team by setting two track records.
In all, 12 skaters earned spots on the U.S. team that will compete in Winter Olympics in Beijing next month.
“All of these athletes had outstanding performances under challenging circumstances at the Olympic Trials,” U.S. Speedskating Executive Director Ted Morris said. “They are ready and eager to represent Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.”
Stolz get off to a hot start on Thursday in his Olympic Trials debut when he captured the top spot in the men’s 1,000-meter race in a time of 1:07.62, breaking the record that two-time Olympic gold medalist and his former coach Shani Davis set in 2005 and besting veteran skater Joey Mantia, who finished second.
Stolz skated to another Pettit Center track record again on Friday in the 500 meters, finishing in 34.56 seconds, topping the previous record of 34.59 set two years ago by Kim Jun-ho of South Korea. Austin Kleba, a 22-year-old former hockey player, grabbed the second spot in 35.17.
“I’m really happy with the time that I did, but I feel like it still could have been a little bit better,” Stolz said after his performance on Friday night. “I had a little bit of a problem before entering the last turn, but I’m really happy with it.”
Stolz, who trains with his club team at the Pettit Center, is the third youngest male ever to make the U.S. speedskating team. He is the junior world record-holder in the 1,000 and earned his first World Cup medal, a silver, in December in Calgary. Stolz also set a new junior world record in the 500 meters in Calgary.
Stolz’s performance at the Olympic Trials has him pondering the possibility of a medal at the Winter Games when the team heads to China.
“I think it’s possible, but right now I’m just hoping to get in the top five,” he said.
Stolz’s parents were able to watch his record-breaking performance by serving as volunteers at the Pettit Center during the trials, which he said made his accomplishment even more special.
“It was really nice having them here, being able to see me make the team,” Stolz said. “It’s just too bad the other parents couldn’t be here.”
Stolz’s accomplishments came on the track where has spent countless hours training to put himself in position to be an Olympian.
“There are no distractions. It’s just really relaxed,” Stolz said of the Pettit Center. “It’s a good environment.”
Stolz has experienced a spectacular rise in the speedskating world over the past season.
“I just really got strong over the summer. That’s the really big thing that changed,” Stolz said. “My technique was good last year, especially at the end of the season. It’s still good. I just put a lot of strength into it over the summer.”
Stolz’s recent performances have many in the sport touting the teen as the next speedskating star.
“I hope they are right. We’ll find out in the future,” he said. “It’s giving me a little bit of confidence. It’s a good feeling, especially when they are comparing me to all the other Olympians. It’s nice to hear.”
Stolz attracted attention during the trials for his restrained demeanor. Aside from a few fist pumps when he crossed the line during his record-breaking races, Stolz showed little outward emotion.
“I feel like I race best when I’m relaxed,” he said. “There’s been plenty of times when I’m really hyped up and I’m really nervous and I totally destroy the entire race and screw it up. I just try and be as relaxed as possible and when I get to the line just focus on what I have to do.”
Austin Kleba, who was exuberant after finishing second in the 500 meters, said he enjoys being around Stolz.
“He’s a funny guy,” Kleba said. “He’s just a nice kid.”
Kleba had high praise for Stolz’s eye-popping performance at the trials.
“It’s been unreal, but I wouldn’t say it’s been unexpected,” Kleba said. “He’s been on a crazy upward trajectory. He’s one of the greats coming up.”
Although Stolz garnered much of the attention, another local skater, Whitefish Bay’s William Gebauer, turned in a strong performance. Although he didn’t land a spot on the Olympic team, Gebauer skated to three top-five finishes, including a personal-best time in the 1,500 meters on Saturday. Gebauer, 23, is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Marquette University graduate Emery Lehman qualified for his third Olympics after finishing second to Joey Mantia in the 1,500 meters. The Oak Park, Illinois-native trained for several years at the Pettit Center. He wore what he called his “lucky” Pettit Center sweatshirt, which he’s had for years, throughout the trials.
“It’s always nice coming back to the Pettit,” Lehman said. “It brings me back to my mom and my coaches driving me up here three or four times a week.”
Mantia, 35, of Ocala, Florida, set a Pettit Center record of 1:44.01 in winning the 1,500 meters. He lowered Chad Hedrick’s previous record of 1:44.47.
“A track record is nice to have in your back pocket,” Mantia said. “I’m ecstatic to be able to take away a track record, especially from Chad Hedrick, who is a guy I looked up to when I was a kid skating inline.”
Mantia applauded the quality of the ice on the Pettit Center track for the Olympic Trails.
“It was phenomenal. The way they make the ice here, it’s been so smooth,” Mantia said after his record-setting performance. “The quality of the surface we are skating on is just incredible.”
Skaters took advantage of the ice conditions while forced to compete in the strangely silent building, with only the shouts of coaches and teammates to spur them on.
“It was a little difficult to get out of this bubble mentality, without having fans and the roar of the crowd when you come around,” said Mia Manganello Kilburg, who won the 3,000 meters and took second in the 1,500 and the mass start at the Trials.
There were tense and emotional moments at the Pettit Center oval, too. Erin Jackson, the world’s top-ranked women in the 500 meters, slipped and finished third, which initially left the gold-medal favorite off the Olympic team. Brittany Bowe and Kimi Goetz took the top two spots. U.S. Speedskating rules didn’t allow for Jackson to have a re-skate, since she didn’t experience a mechanical failure with her skates or fall during the race, seemingly dashing her Olympic dreams.
Several skaters on the women’s team admitted on Saturday night to being distracted by the stunning development. The mood became more positive on Sunday.
Bowe, Jackson’s long-time friend, opted to give up her spot in the 500, which will allow Jackson to compete in Beijing.
“Brittany and I go really far back. For her to do something like this for me, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “I’m really grateful and really humbled. She’s an amazing person.”
Jackson described her performance on the ice as stressful and disappointing.
“I love having a good race and when I had a bad one, that’s disappointing in itself. And then to put on top of it potentially missing out on the Olympics after a season I’ve been really proud of, it was really devastating,” Jackson said. “Another thing is that I just love being in Milwaukee. I used to have all of my personal best times here, so I’m always excited to get out on the Milwaukee ice and have a good race here.”
Bowe said she didn’t hesitate in making the decision.
“This is bigger than just me. This is the Olympic Games. This is about Team USA and giving everybody an opportunity to showcase what they have,” Bowe said. “Erin is absolutely on the top of her game now. She’s earned the right to be there, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store in Beijing.”
Bowe, who qualified for her third Olympic team, will still compete in the 1,000 and 1,500 in Beijing. Bowe broke her own Pettit Center track record in winning the 1,000-meter race on Thursday.
The performance of the men’s and women’s teams at the Olympic Trials has raised hopes and expectations heading into Beijing.
A once dominant force, U.S. speedskaters performed poorly at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, failing to capture a single medal. The U.S. won a single bronze medal in the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It’s nice when the whole team starts upping their game and breaking personal records and track records and setting the bar higher and higher for everybody,” Mantia said.
Stolz’s performance throughout the speedskating season has pushed others to do better, he said.
“He’s a big part of everybody stepping their game up,” Mantia said.
The positive atmosphere surrounding the teams has been beneficial, Kleba said.
“Every day in practice is enjoyable,” Kleba said. “This past year has been great. Also, there’s pressure. Jordan Stolz, a 17-year-old, is going crazy fast and putting pressure on everyone else to step up.”
The men’s and women’s speedskating teams are poised for success in Beijing, Manganello Kilburg said.
“I’ve been around for a while and it’s one of the strongest teams I have witnessed,” she said. “There’s definitely a pretty proud group of people that are ready to show up.”
With the Olympic Trials behind them, the speedskaters who are headed to Beijing still must deal with the stress of COVID-19 as they go through their final preparations for the Olympic Games.
“I’ll be in my little bubble back in Salt Lake City, just going from my house to the rink,” Bowe said. “With a little bit of love and a lot of prayers, hopefully Team USA can all get to Beijing healthy.”
The U.S. men’s and women’s long track team members who will compete in Beijing after qualifying in Milwaukee are as follows: Giorgia Birkeland, White Bear Lake, Minnesota; Brittany Bowe, Ocala, Florida; Ethan Cepuran, Glen Ellyn, Illinois; Casey Dawson, Park City, Utah; Kimi Goetz, Flemington, New Jersey; Erin Jackson, Ocala, Florida; Austin Kleba, Campton Hills, Illinois; Emery Lehman, Oak Park, Illinois; Mia Manganello Kilburg, Crestview, Florida; Joey Mantia, Ocala, Florida; Jordan Stolz, Kewaskum, Wisconsin; and Ian Quinn, St. Louis.
The Beijing Games run Feb. 4-20.