KEARNS — Even the world's most experienced, most decorated athletes struggle to balance the rigors of professional competition with the demands of life away from sports.
But imagine doing it at 16.
Just when most teenagers are worrying about acquiring a driver's license and finding prom dates, Sarah Chen and John-Henry Krueger are trying to figure out how to be the world's best in what is often referred to as "NASCAR on ice."
"I love pushing myself to the next level," said Chen, a short track speed skater who competed last year in her first World Cup in China. "I love always trying to achieve something great. It's an unbelievable feeling to accomplish something you thought was impossible."
What these two teens face this week isn't impossible, but they do face long odds as they take the ice in the most important competitions of their young careers.
This weekend, Chen will skate in her second World Cup and Krueger will compete in his first as the best short track speed skaters converge on the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns for the ISU Korean Air Short Track World Cup. More than 200 skaters from 23 countries will compete, including 2010 Olympic medalists Katherine Reutter, J.R. Celski, Jordan Malone, Alyson Dudek and Lana Gehring. (Competition begins Friday, Oct. 21 at 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 22 at 6 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. Admission is $10 adults; $7 children/seniors; Free for children 3 & under. For more information, visit www.olyparks.com.)
The challenge just to earn a place on the U.S. Speed Skating team was so great that Chen moved from Southern California to Utah in June. For more than a year, the straight-A student and accomplished cellist flew to Utah whenever she had a three-day weekend to train with the national team.
The commutes were taxing and eventually Chen and her parents decided that in order for her to reach her potential in the sport she loves, she needed to be closer to the U.S. Speed Skating teams' training facilities and coaches.
She had to leave her home, her family and her friends in hopes of seeing just how far her speed skating talent will take her.
"Growing up I had the support of the community in Southern California," she said. "It was hard to leave that security. But I didn't want to look back and have any regrets."
So she moved to Utah and enrolled at Waterford, a rigorous private school.
"Right now my grandparents are trading off with my parents," said Chen. "I have two other (younger) siblings, so my mom can't be out here in Salt Lake City with me all the time. My grandparents have been nice enough to come out and look after me."
She said both she and her grandparents are enjoying Utah.
"They didn't get to see me skate much, so it's exciting for them," she said.
Chen said Waterford administrators have customized her education so that she can continue to take honors and AP classes while putting in the hours necessary to chase her dream of being an Olympian.
"The school has been extremely accommodating with my athletic schedule," she said. "We devised a unique schedule that lets me train and study at the highest level in school and in skating. Some of the teachers and faculty have even given up lunch hours or arranged separate meeting times to offer me extra assistance."
Meanwhile, she's working as hard as she can on the ice, and it's paying off as she earned the right to compete this weekend.
For Chen, it is a special competition, not just because of what's at stake professionally, but because her family will be in the stands.
"Because having World Cups in the U.S. is rare, my whole family will be able to come out and watch me compete," said Chen. "My dad (who is a cardiologist) has not been able to watch me compete much."
Chen said she has moments when she misses the comfort of home, but she is appeased by the knowledge that she's following her heart.
Krueger has had to take a non-traditional route in order to balance training with his schooling, as well. He transferred from a private school to an online charter school in fifth grade so he could spend more time training with his speed skating team in Pittsburgh.
He said he learned very quickly how to be disciplined and self-motivated.
"It was a little different," he said of attending Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. "A kid's dream is to be at home all day and never go to school. But school is the most important thing in anyone's life, and skating will not be there forever. You need an education. I realized at a young age that if I let (school work) go, and didn't get it done, I would have to go back to private school, and I wouldn't be able to skate."
Krueger said he is a little nervous lining up against the world's best in its highest level of competition outside of the Olympics.
"I'm representing my country at one of the highest levels, but at the same time, it's my first (World Cup) and it's a learning experience."
Do not mistake his awe for weakness, however.
"My main goal is to go out there and win gold in every distance I'm racing," he said. "I'm here to learn, but I'm here to race."
Both teens said striking a balance is important, and they both already have planned career paths after they're finished seeing just how far skating will take them.
Krueger said he'd like to be a middle school teacher, possibly social studies or English. Chen sees herself following her father's footsteps into medicine.
"I would still like sports to play an active role in my life," she said. "So I would like to pursue sports medicine."
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