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06-2022

Column: The center of US speedskating is… Florida?

BEIJING ( Associated Press) — When one looks at the roster of the US speedskating team at the Beijing Olympics, three names immediately pop out.

Brittany Bowe.

Erin Jackson.

Joy Mantia.

All three of these winter sports have the best skaters in the world and top medal contenders, but that’s not what gets your attention.

This is their hometown next to each of their names.

One city for all three. A place just north of Disney World known for producing some of the fastest breed on the planet, earning the moniker “Horse Capital of the World.”

It may be time for Ocala, Florida to change that nickname a bit.

“We have faster horses,” bragged Renee Hildebrand, “and faster skaters.”

Hildebrand deserves much credit for turning sunny, hot Ocala – where the forecast called for a high of 82 degrees on Friday, with Bowe as one of America’s flag bearers for the Winter Olympics opening. The latter was not long – the world at the epicenter of US speedskating.

Don’t just go looking for an ice skating rink.

They don’t have one in Ocala.

“The closest is an hour away,” Hildebrandt explained.

Which isn’t really an issue for her, as she doesn’t know how to ice skate.

Ocala has a roller skating rink, and that’s where Hildebrand flourishes. He has the ability to find talented kids and coach them on how to go really fast with the wheels under their feet.

And, as it turned out, she had three of the most promising rights in her adopted hometown. Heck, all three were born in the same hospital.

Training with Hildebrand’s famed team, Bowe and Jackson and Mantia, evolved into elite inliners, each winner of multiple world championships before transitioning to the ice in pursuit of Olympic glory.

Her success, which in recent months was marred by Jackson’s surprise emergence as the first black woman to win a World Cup event, makes Hildebrandt feel like a proud parent.

But his immense satisfaction is tinged with a little sadness. “My children,” as Hildebrand still calls them, had no hope of going to the Olympics with her first love.

Inline skating has repeatedly been spun off to become an official summer sports sport, and it now seems that whatever momentum it gained to achieve a once increasingly bloated program is now lost.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Are you upset that all your best skaters have gone to the ice? Hildebrand said. “Well, you can only win so many world championships before you get bored of it. All three did it. They were ready for the next challenge. You have to be motivated, no matter what you do. But if Had it been inline at the Olympics, he would never have gone to the snow. He was happy doing his game.”

His game. his game. But a game that could take him so far.

Not too far, it turned out.

The attraction of the Olympics is strong.

“I wish inline skating was at the Olympics,” Mantia said. “It definitely deserves to be.”

He still remembers the huge campaign that Hildebrand created for him at a young age, how it inspired him to be his best self. He was not thinking about the Olympics then. He just wanted to impress his coach.

“I’ve always wanted to have a kind of show for him,” Mantia said after a training session at the dazzling Ice Ribbon Oval, where speedskating begins on Saturday. ‘I’ve always wanted to show him how well I can skate. It was a big inspiration for me.”

US speedskating coach Ryan Shimabukuro notices a similar thread in all three skaters he inherited from Hildebrand.

“Skating is a very demanding sport, whether on ice or inline,” he said. “He instilled in them hunger and fighting instinct. When you transition to snow, no matter what, it takes time. He inspired them with a strong work ethic. ,

Hildebrand is concerned about the future of her sport, which is not in the Olympics, as the popularity of inline skating in the United States has waned.

Once a world superpower that produced other inline-to-ice stars like Chad Hedrick, Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez — Olympic medalists — the American inline program has been left in the dust by a new world power, Colombia.

This does not bode well for maintaining a pipeline of talent from non-traditional areas into the US speedskating program, and almost certainly eliminates any hope of inline skating at the Olympics.

“I think I’ve given up,” said Hildebrand, resigning in her voice. “I still had hope when we were on the short list, but golf and rugby overtook us. I mean, Tiger Woods’ chance at the Olympics? How can we match that?”

Hildebrand had planned to participate in these Olympics, the role she played in development to make the Ocala kids happy, but the pandemic shattered those hopes.

She’s known for months that foreign spectators won’t be allowed—and she may have been just that, as her inline coaching credentials seem to have no effect at the Winter Olympics—but in recent days the pain of missing out has begun to subside, a Like an old wound whose scar was torn.

“I thought I was over it, but I’m not,” Hildebrandt said. “I can’t even describe it. I just want to be so bad. I can’t tell you how bad I want to be with them. I’m so proud of them. They’ve worked so hard.”

But Hildebrand isn’t going to be down for long, so she quickly turns to her plans for the next two weeks. She’ll be glued to TV in Florida, even though the 13-hour time difference means speedskating events will be held before the sun rises in the states.

She can also meet with elderly patients with whom she works in her other job, as a physical therapist in an assisted-living facility.

“They are the people,” quipped Hildebrand, “who get up early.”

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Paul Newbery is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press covering his 15th Olympics. Write to her at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and see her work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry.

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More Associated Press Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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