Citing high COVID-19 infection rates in Milwaukee and early testing results of athletes, the U.S. Speedskating Board of Directors decided in an emergency meeting Sunday that it won’t allow spectators to attend the U.S. Olympic Long Track Team Trials scheduled to be held Wednesday through Sunday at the Pettit National Ice Center.
“This is the most difficult action I have had to take in my 13 years as executive director,” Randy Dean of the Pettit Center stated in a message sent to ticketholders on Sunday night.
Dean said the Pettit Center staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare the venue, and a large group of volunteers are extremely disappointed with the outcome but respect the decision “in order to give the best chance for athletes to compete safely in the trials and fulfill their dreams to compete for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team.”
Plain and simple, the decision deals a major blow to the Pettit Center, which had expected to draw between 1,400 and 1,500 fans on each of five days for the trials, which begin Wednesday.
About 70 athletes are expected to compete in the trials.
Despite the absence of fans, there will be high drama at the Pettit Center speedskating oval as athletes compete for spots on the men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic team that will participate in the Winter Games in Beijing in February.
The Pettit Center also hosted the long track Olympic trials four years ago in advance of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“We brought the trails back here in 2018 for the first time in 20 years,” Dean said. “We were delighted with that, and they opted to come back based on the success we had with our venue. The athletes loved it, the coaches loved it, the fans were great. U.S. Speedskating wanted to come back here and replicate that success.”
The event is important for Milwaukee because of its speedskating legacy, which dates back to the 1960s when skaters competed on an outdoor oval on the grounds of Wisconsin State Fair Park. The Pettit National Ice Center’s indoor oval opened on Jan. 1, 1993.
Over the years, several legendary skaters trained at the Pettit Center and lived in the Milwaukee area, including Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair-Cruikshank, Chris Witty and Shani Davis, all of whom won Olympic gold medals.
The U.S. speedskating teams, once a powerhouse, had lackluster performances in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics in terms of reaching the podium.
“There’s some renewed optimism with the 2022 games with some recent achievements on the world cup level,” Dean said.
Among those to keep on eye on during the trials is 17-year-old rising star Jordan Stolz of Kewaskum, known for his efficiency in turning corners and high speed on the straightaways. Stolz’s latest breakthrough came in Calgary, Alberta, in December where he earned his first world cup medal, winning a silver in the 1,000-meter race. He also set a new junior world record in the 500-meter in Calgary.
“He’s really risen very quickly,” Dean said.
Another skater to watch is Erin Jackson, who at 29 is still a relative newcomer to speedskating after transferring over from inline skating. Four months after making the switch, Jackson qualified for the 2018 Winter Games, becoming the first Black American woman named to an Olympic long track team.
Jackson comes to Milwaukee having won four world cup races this season.
“She’s really started to come in to her own,” Dean said.
Veteran skaters Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia also will compete at the Pettit Center.
At 33, Bowe is attempting to make her third Olympic team. She completed 2021 with a gold medal in the 1,500-meter and a silver medal in the 1,000-meter at the world cup in Calgary.
Mantia, 35, is also on track for making his third Olympics. Heading into Milwaukee, Mantia ranks No. 1 in the 1,500-meter. Mantia is also a three-time world champion in the mass start race.
The men’s team pursuit squad of Mantia, Emery Lehman and Casey Dawson is expected to head into Beijing as medal contenders. The trio set a world record earlier this season.
“We are looking for some great and exciting races,” Dean said.
Although spectators will be absent, the event still certainly holds importance for the Milwaukee area and will put the city in the national spotlight. USA Network will provide live television coverage from the Pettit Center on all five days.
“We think it’s important for the city of Milwaukee to be branded as an Olympic city,” Dean said. “Not many places can host Olympic trials. We are one of the last ones to have the trials because the Olympics are coming up in February. We kind of ride the tsunami of all the media hype heading into the Olympic Games. We are delighted to have it back it here and to pound our chests a little bit.”
The national team is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the only country’s only other indoor speedskating oval is located. There are just five indoor ovals in North America, as well as an outdoor facility in Minnesota.
“There are athletes who are living out in Salt Lake City that began their training here,” Dean said. “One of our roles here is that when we develop skaters, we launch them to the national program. We’d love to have the national program here but years ago that change was made.”
The Salt Lake City oval claims to have the world’s fastest ice conditions because of its high-altitude location.
“The air is thinner. That has certain benefits,” Dean said. “We can’t compete with that, but we think we are among the fastest ovals at sea level. One of the other reasons the skaters are coming here is that our conditions will more closely replicate what they are going to skate on in Beijing. At sea level, we replicate the temperature and ice conditions so that experience what it will be like in China.”
Dean credited the Pettit Center’s facilities director, Paul Golomski, for his steadfast work in preparing the ice for this week’s Olympic trials.
“The ice will be fast,” Dean said.
Dean had hoped that young fans attending to the trails this week would become interested in speedskating, providing a boost to the Pettit Center’s recruiting efforts.
“We’d love to have more numbers,” he said. “We were hoping that youngsters could get excited about the trials being here and be inspired by the athletes and be on the podium themselves in the future.”
Refunds will be provided to those who purchased tickets in advance. However, ticketholders will have an option to have the costs of the tickets reclassified as a charitable donation to the Pettit National Ice Center to offset costs incurred in preparing for the event.