Ben Thornock could almost forget about the Olympics while serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in northern Japan. He had no access to television or the internet and was limited to one email a week, from his parents, as he concentrated on proselytizing for his church.
Every once in a while, though, the Taylorsville High graduate’s route would take him past a store with a TV. He’d catch a glimpse of a speedskater, and he’d feel a pang in his heart.
“I just died thinking at home I could have watched it,” Thornock, 22, said.
Not just watch, Thornock had a chance to be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, competing in the 2018 Winter Games. He let it pass by, opting instead to serve his mission from 2017-2019. Despite his best efforts to tune it out, though, his Olympic dream lingered in the periphery of his mind during those two years abroad. Now he’s back at the Utah Olympic Oval, preparing to make a run at the 2022 Games in Beijing.
“I was fired up,” Thornock said of his return to short track speedskating. “I felt like I had some unfinished business.”
US Speedskating coach Wilma Boomstra, who took over the team in 2018 while Thornock was in Japan, said she saw that drive when he returned to the track. It was one of the reasons she placed him on the national team earlier this month.
“What I did see is he came in with a lot of eagerness,” she said. “He’s eager to get better and I love that.”
It didn’t take much effort for a young Thornock to imagine himself as an Olympic speedskater. All he had to do was blur his eyes a little while watching the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 12-year-old became Apolo Ohno, whizzing around the track on his way to collecting a silver and two bronze medals.
“I thought maybe this could be my sport,” said Thornock who, like Ohno, is Japanese American.
He didn’t have to go far to find out. The Oval, where the national team is headquartered, is just a couple miles from his house. He started with a learn to skate program and quickly worked his way onto the Facilitated Athlete Sport Training, or FAST, team, a development squad for promising juniors.
Two things really helped him blossom within the sport. One, he was cut from his high school basketball team his senior year. Two, a skating coach opened Thornock’s eyes to his potential.
“One of my skating coaches basically sat me down and said, like, the chances of me making the NBA are 1 in like a huge number. Then he said the chances of me making the Olympics are like 1 in 100. That just kind of hit me,” Thornock said. “He said I had a lot of talent and if I worked hard, I could be successful in the sport. That’s when I really started to take it more seriously.”
At 16 years old, he skated the time trial portion of the 2014 Olympic Trials. Two years later, he skated the relay at the Short Track Junior World Championships in Bulgaria. In 2017, he earned an individual spot at the Short Track Junior World Championships in Austria, where he came home with a bronze medal in the relay.
With the 2018 Olympic Trials looming, he had to make a choice. He could push forward with his athletic goals with the knowledge he would have to take a break sometime before he turned 26 to serve his LDS mission. Or, he could serve his mission right away and hope he could find the fitness and drive to go after another Olympics sometime down the line.
After much discussion with his parents and a considerable amount of prayer, he made his decision.
“It was just a feeling: This chapter was finished,” he said. “I felt like I needed to go and experience things in Japan. It was like it was calling to me.”
Thornock didn’t know his destination when he asked to be assigned to a mission. When he learned he would be sent to Japan, where his mother is from, he knew he’d made the right choice. He said he never regretted his decision to put his faith first.
Still, it wasn’t easy being in a foreign land away from the sport he loved. He watched his fitness wane — he had 30 minutes first thing each morning to exercise or otherwise would have to drag his companion along on his workouts — as well as his skills. One day in early 2018, he suffered an emotional blow when his mother emailed him to tell him several of his friends and training buddies had qualified for the Olympic team.
“That was kind of a hard-hitting moment for me, thinking I could have been there competing and here I am in Japan having a hard time learning the language,” Thornock said. “But I worked hard the rest of my mission. I knew when I came back I would give it a try.”
Not even the best Zamboni could smooth Thornock’s return path to speedskating. He had to retrain his body for the physical rigors and his mind for the strategies. When he returned to the ice in early 2019, he often had to skate with the girls — and they often beat him.
Thornock didn’t let it frustrate him. He kept his eyes on his new mission.
“It seemed like he was always really driven. He was improving every week. There was a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Aaron Tran, a 2018 Olympian and a friend of Thornock’s since 2014. “Every week he was catching back up. He was motivated. He was crushing it.”
To reward his effort, Boomstra named Thornock a training partner to the 2019 national team. He made the most of that opportunity and of a small training block with Boomstra in February. So when a spot on the national team opened up, he was a natural choice.
“Physically, he’s gifted. And he’s such a great team player,” she said. “He’s one of the guys who’s always motivated, never complains, is always positive and trying to lift people up. I really like the guy.”
This winter, Thornock will try to earn a spot as one of six men on the World Cup team. That could serve as a springboard to the world championships, the Olympic trials and, eventually to the Beijing Games in 2022.
Thornock would like to reach that goal, but he said he realizes God may have something else planned.
“I feel like we all know what we have to do and I feel like he’s on the right path,” Tran said. “At end of the day, it’s not about making the team, it’s about doing what you love and having no regrets doing it.
“I feel like he’s on a good track. Even if he doesn’t make the team, it’s going to be a memorable experience for the rest of his life.”