Once upon a time, the United States’ best long track speedskaters expected to be ramping up for next year’s Winter Olympics by racing against the world’s best in a World Cup event at the Utah Olympic Oval this weekend in Kearns. Instead they’ll be competing there against their peers and training partners in the U.S. Long Track National Championships.
Whatever the prize and competition, they’ll likely just be happy to be racing.
COVID-19 has wiped out nearly all in-person long track races so far this season. Whereas this weekend originally marked the halfway point in the International Skating Union’s World Cup slate, it now stands as just the second live event of any kind on US Speedskating’s long track calendar. The Oval also hosted the season opener, the USS Fall International race, on Oct. 23-25.
The lack of competition has to be hard on athletes, said retired long track Olympian Catherine Raney, especially in the last full season before the Beijing Games in February 2022. Raney, who is an athlete liaison for the committee working to bring an Olympics back to Utah, said she’s seen the lack of competition take its toll on athletes preparing for the Summer Olympics in Japan, which were postponed a year because of the virus. That is now spreading over to Winter Olympic hopefuls.
“Athletes just want to compete,” she said. “You know, they have been training for 10, 15 years, right? And this is their dream and this is the pinnacle. And they just want to compete. And when you have something like this happen this summer with the postponement of the games, I think it becomes even more dire and it becomes even more important.”
Most of US Speedskating’s best bets to win medals in Beijing will be on the ice. On the women’s side, that includes Brittany Bowe, Erin Jackson, Kimi Goetz, Brianna Bocox and Mia Kilburg. On the men’s side, look for Joey Mantia, Austin Kleba, Will Gebauer, Conor Mcdermott-Mostowy, Casey Dawson and Ethan Cepuran.
Skaters will race Friday through Sunday and highlights will be aired on NBCSN on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. and on the Olympic Channel on Dec. 12 and 18.
The Oval also hosted the 2019 national championships last December. At that time, skaters had already earned the U.S. up to three World Cup starting positions in each distance and were competing for the right to attach their names to those spots. Now, nationals will serve as the selection race for a “potential World Cup Team in the event of a ‘Hub-Like’ World Cup Series the ISU might host in January 2021,” according to US Speedskating’s event page.
That would include two World Cup races, on Jan. 22-24 and Jan. 29-31, as well as the World Single Distance Championships, set for Feb. 11-14. All three would be held in Heerenveen, Netherlands. A decision on whether they will be contested is expected to be made Dec. 10.