I just wasn’t able to connect the dots and make it happen. If I wasn’t retired, I’d probably be struggling with skating, with my less-than-ideal performance, and trying to continue to struggle to continue training. I’ve done it before, and it’s tough. Retirement put me at ease. —Matt Plummer
WEST JORDAN — Matt Plummer’s Olympic dream was born in front of a television set in St. Louis.
It slipped through his fingers for the second and final time two weeks ago in Kearns, on the ice where he’s trained every day for 7 1/2 years.
For every athlete that fulfills their dream of competing for the United States in the Olympic Games, there are dozens of others who never realize that goal.
Plummer’s is a dream unfulfilled.
But while he never had the moment that lured him into speedskating, he leaves the sport with no regrets.
A CHILDHOOD DREAM, A LIFE PATH
At 6 years old, he was transfixed as he watched three-time Olympian Dan Jansen win his first and only Olympic gold medal in the 1,000 meters in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I thought that was the coolest stuff in the entire world,” Plummer said. “I was sitting in my living room, and I said, ‘Mom, I want to try that. That looks really cool.’”
While a lot of children are moved by Olympic moments, Plummer was changed. That moment gave his life a direction that would be difficult to maintain without deep commitment and complete confidence in his ability to reach the highest level of a sport that only offers Olympic glory as a reward. There is no NFL or NBA for winter sports athletes like Plummer. You don’t make thousands to be on a practice squad. There are no college scholarships or minor leagues. If you’re lucky, you find sponsors or have a family who can help you financially.
If you’re not, you struggle to pay the bills with part-time jobs that allow you to train six hours a day and travel six months of the year. Plummer had family support, and that led him to success.
Plummer’s mother quickly found that the family just happened to live in a hotbed for short track speedskating.
“I was taking learn to skate classes and she saw a flyer,” Plummer said. “It was very easy to get involved in St. Louis. I don’t remember all my emotions, how I felt about it, but I had to have liked it enough to stay with it. ... I ended up being pretty good at it.”
OLYMPIC DREAMS AREN’T EASILY FOLLOWED
Even before he was in fifth grade, he knew the path he’d have to take if he wanted to follow in Jansen’s footsteps.
“Even before I was 10, I knew this was an Olympic sport — and one of the best Olympic sports that there is,” the 26-year-old said. “So pretty early on the Olympics were my goal.”
For Olympic sport athletes, their chance to succeed at the highest level only comes once every four years. One of the most successful female skiers of all time, Lindsey Vonn, only has one Olympic gold medal. Injuries, illnesses, an off-day, crummy weather, bad luck — they can rob these athletes of moments so fleeting the rest of the world may not notice.
For Olympians, you deliver on those days.
In 2006, at the age of 18, Plummer moved to Utah to “give long track a try. I made the junior world team within a few months.”
He said the transition to long track was seamless.
“I think I was actually better at it,” he said. “I did enjoy it quite a bit more. It’s a whole heck of a lot faster and the best person always wins (because skaters are simply timed). In short track (where skaters race against each other), everybody struggles with the fact that falls and penalties can change an outcome.” His father required him to go to college while he pursued his speedskating dreams, something he came to see as a very wise admonishment.
“I did want to go to school,” he said, acknowledging that with training and traveling schedules, it is difficult to pursue. “He basically said, ‘You have to do this.’ But I knew it was good for me. I always had a timeline on my skating. I knew Sochi was going to be my last shot, and I didn’t want to retire with even a semester of school to go. I wanted to be prepared to hit the ground running.”
Plummer managed to juggle college studies with elite level athletics, and he earned a degree in political science, with a minor in economics, from the University of Utah.
As he packs the belongings decorating his West Jordan apartment, he discusses future job prospects, how he’ll stay involved in speedskating, and where he and a friend might stop to do some sightseeing on the drive from Utah to Missouri.
He leaves Utah with a lot of experiences that have made him a better person.
“You can’t be a good speedskater without having work ethic,” he said. “This sport, you have to have that to be good. You build on that as the years go on, and you see what hard work gets you. You see that it pays off.” He believes his work ethic will serve him well as he begins life away from professional sports.
He’s also seen the world and made friendships that he’ll treasure for the rest of his life.
“The experiences I’ve had with these people mean a lot,” he said.
But the one thing he also leaves with is the knowledge that he didn’t achieve the goal he set for himself in first grade. While he’s skated for his country in World Cup races, he never made an Olympic team.
TWO SHOTS, TWO HEARTBREAKS
Plummer has had two shots at making the U.S. long track Olympic team — in 2010 and 2014.
“Vancouver was really close,” he said of the fraction of a second that separated him and teammate Mitch Whitmore in the 500 meters. “This time, Shani (Davis, who earned the fourth and final spot in the 500 meters) was about a second in front of me. I was sixth.”
Ironically, this time was a tougher blow to take because in the 2010 trials, he felt he’d given everything he had.
“I was really satisfied,” he said. “I’d skated better than I had in my life, set a personal record by a mile, and I was beat that day at my absolute best. I don’t think that’s anything to be sad or depressed about. This time, I definitely felt I could have done quite a bit better.”
The athletes undergo testing, and Plummer’s tests showed he’s stronger, more powerful and more fit than at any other point in his career.
“I just wasn’t able to connect the dots and make it happen,” he said. “If I wasn’t retired, I’d probably be struggling with skating, with my less-than-ideal performance, and trying to continue to struggle to continue training. I’ve done it before, and it’s tough. Retirement put me at ease.”
LIFE AFTER THE DREAM
Part of what eases Plummer's disappointment is that becoming one of the country's best in any sport is something of which a person can be proud. He represents his fellow speedskaters on the U.S. speedskating board, so his involvement in the sport will not end right away.
“Aside from skating (competitively), I’m still living the same life,” he said. “Once I’m in St. Louis, it will probably hit me quite a bit harder.” He said he also doesn’t see a future void of skating.
“This is a great sport,” he said. “I have to stay involved the next two years, and I’ll probably stay involved after that. This sport really struggles with finding officials, so I might want to become an official. I might go home and coach little kids on a volunteer basis. I just can’t see me not being involved with speedskating.”
Plummer said that he never once thought that all of his hard work was in vain. Even without achieving his ultimate goal, he’s achieved a lot, and maybe more importantly, he’s gained a lot.
“This has made me the person that I am,” he said. “There are so many other paths I could have chosen.”
When you ask him to talk about the sacrifices he’s made to chase his Olympic dreams, he said it feels odd to talk about sacrificing when he's gotten to live his dream.
“It’s hard to stay motivated,” he said. “But I’ve tried over the years to become a process-motivated person, not an outcome-motivated person. I’ve had conversations with Tucker (Fredricks, a three-time Olympian) about sacrifices, and while it’s true that we sacrifice, in my mind, this is what I love to do. I wouldn’t want to do any other sports. Have I really made sacrifices to do something that I really love? I’ve been able to live my life, the life I want. I was able to make myself an athlete, all because I wanted to be a speedskater.”