By Tahmina Achekzai and Sonya Bessalel, Published: August 17The Washington Post
For a sport that looks so effortless, it's
amazing how exhausted the athletes are at the end of each lap. Their skates skid
along the ice, and they are constantly speeding counterclockwise and crouching
lower to the freezing arena. The athletes sprint with feet sliding concurrently
and arms behind their backs in defiance. Their coach constantly yells "Faster,
faster!" as muscles ache and legs begin to buckle.
Welcome to the world of competitive speed skating. This grueling sport has
been around since the 13th century and began as a form of transportation across
icy waters. Since then, its popularity has increased and it has developed into
an Olympic sport. Speed skating tests the stamina, strength and speed of the
athletes who compete.
How does an athlete persevere through hours of training, repetitive movements and shear exhaustion, while braving the freezing cold and balancing on thin, precarious blades?
“Halfway through a time trial and you're legs would already have hit the wall," said Shaner LeBauer, a 16-year-old speed skater from Potomac, Md. LeBauer was a gold medalist at the U.S. National Short-Track Speed Skating Competition. "The only thing you can do at that point on is push through it which is very difficult because your legs are screaming at you.”
For Lexi Burkholder, 16, a speed skater who has represented the U.S. at international competitions, the sport has also taken its toll. Last year, she tore her quadriceps and is still recovering from knee surgery. Because of her injury, she went on a three-month hiatus from skating and was recovering for the next nine.
Dealing with the nerves that accompany competitions is another challenge athletes have to overcome.
“I used to always choke when I was nervous and I’ve learned to harness it to my advantage just recently,” said LeBauer. He realized that nervousness helps because “I don’t think about the pain as much. I don’t overthink the strategy as much. I think on my feet much better when I’m nervous.”
Burkholder’s advice is to “trust your training and focus on the things you can change at that moment. You can’t change how you’re trained at that point or make yourself stronger. You can’t think about the other people. Do what you’ve been training to do.”