Top US speedskaters come to Ice Arena

With speeds averaging about 30 miles an hour, the top speed skaters from across the country competed in the American Cup at the University’s Ice Arena this weekend, all hopefuls of graduating to the Olympic-level someday.

Because of the shortened length of the rink, the event consisted of only short track events, limiting the total registered competitors to 56. Several amateur U.S. speed skaters training for the 2014 games were in attendance. Each race usually consisted of about five to six skaters depending on the event. Many times, only U.S. amateurs raced against each other.

“That’s why they came up with (these events), so the top competition can compete against each other,” said Marcus Merrill, vice president and board member of the Champaign Regional Speed Skating Club, which hosted the event. “It’s basically limited to people that can skate the higher level speeds.”

Several team USA representatives were also in attendance speculating about who might be a good fit for the team in two years in Sochi, Russia. Coming off of a silver medal performance in team pursuit two years ago in Vancouver, the U.S. is seeking an even better performance in two years as it tries to recruit new skaters to the team.

“From what I saw today, the belief that these events are producing the top Olympic talent is definitely confirmed,” said Michael Hubbs, a competitor at the event. “The USA team has a bright future; these events are important because they’re where you get to be picked for the USA world team.”

But coming from the last team, several skaters, particularly on the men’s side, have had a series of injuries, and several other individuals have left the team.

“I think we’ve lost some people, but we haven’t lost any momentum; if anything, I think we’re stronger,” said Jack Mortell, director of sport operations for USA speed skating. “Last Olympics, we felt like we came up a little short; we had a lot of medalists but not gold medalists. An Olympics medal is fine, but silver just doesn’t shine as bright as gold.”

Being the last of the three cup series, the next event will be the 2012 American Cup Final on March 2-4 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the U.S. Olympic Center for speed skating is located. The entire series goes off of a point system in order to determine which men and women within each event is the number one amateur speed skater. The winner of the overall series gets “an automatic birth into our training program.”

“(Getting in to the program) is a huge deal because if you look at Vancouver, we were the only country that did this: every single one (short-track competitors) came back with an Olympic medal,” Mortell said. “So if you make our Olympic team, you’ve got a good chance at coming home as an Olympic medalist.”