Those two races just came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. I was skating well. I had no idea I was going to go that fast. —Tucker Fredricks
SALT LAKE CITY — If Tucker Fredricks needed validation for his decision to give one more year of his life to long-track speedskating, he got it in the most satisfying way possible.
In the season-opening World Cup in Calgary last weekend, the 29-year-old Wisconsin native won both of the 500-meter races in which he skated.
“Those two races just came out of nowhere,” said Fredricks, who contemplated quitting the sport after battling bulging discs and a mediocre season last year. “I wasn’t expecting it. I was skating well. I had no idea I was going to go that fast.”
In fact, until a couple of days before the competition, he was dealing with debilitating back pain, just as he’s done far too often in the past 10 years.
“I’m doing all right now,” he said Wednesday as he prepared for the season’s second ISU World Cup this weekend on his home ice at the Utah Olympic Center. “I had some issues with it leading up to the race, but it got better a couple of days before. I got real lucky.”
The U.S. only had one spot in the A Division, so Fredricks had to skate in the B Division the first day of competition because he finished second overall in team selection races two weeks ago.
“I won group B, and the winner of group B moves to group A,” he said.
The next day, he competed in the A Division and won a gold medal by beating Olympic Champion Mo Tae-Bum. For Fredricks, it is a confirmation of his decision to stick with the sport.
“It was really exciting and a big relief,” he said. “It’s early in the season, so it’s kind of scary at the same time. It’s a long time until February, and I don’t know what will happen down the road. At least I know that I still have something in me.”
Fredricks and the rest of the U.S. long-track skaters will begin racing Friday morning with the women’s B Division 500-meter race at the Utah Olympic Park in Kearns.
Fredricks isn’t the only U.S. athlete to find success in the first World Cup race of the season. Heather Richardson, the reigning world sprint champion, won gold in the 1,000 meters. Her teammate and training partner Brittany Bowe earned a bronze medal in the same event after winning every distance in the team trials.
Richardson said it was nice to have a win after suffering through medical issues that left her with severe stomach pain.
“I definitely feel a lot better,” she said. “My legs felt normal again, and no stomach pain. I knew it was going to be a good weekend.”
Richardson and Fredricks said their strategy is to focus on technique rather than speed or results. It’s difficult, but it’s paid off for both athletes.
“It’s very important for me to find the right technique so that my speed does come easier,” Richardson said. “I know that if I put in a solid technical race, my speed is going to come.”
Richardson said she wasn’t discouraged to finish second in every distance a couple of weeks ago.
“I was actually really satisfied, even to get second,” she said. “Winning (in Calgary) definitely gave me more confidence. I feel like I’m where I should be right now.” This year has more pressure than most as the ultimate prize is on the line — Olympic gold.
But it isn’t just the Olympics that have changed the energy of this season for Fredricks. It’s also his decision to quit worrying about finish times and start focusing on details that not many outside the sport would ever notice.
“This year feels different to me,” Fredricks said. “I’ve had some letdowns in previous Olympic years, I really came into this year not thinking about winning or getting a medal or anything. It’s more about the process. I wanted to be in really good shape and just have another chance to race at the Olympics. It truly doesn’t seem like an Olympic year (because of the change in approach).”
Fredricks, who’s attempting to make his third Olympic team, said he’s never won the season-opening World Cup.
“I’m really, really happy,” he said. “I’m real excited to have won a gold medal in the first World Cup.”