Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the ninth in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Jerica Tandiman may have followed her older sister into figure skating had she not learned to ice skate at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.
“I was about 7 years old, and my parents had my older sister and I go there to learn to skate,” said the 23-year-old who will compete in her first Olympic event Wednesday night. “My sister was doing figure skating lessons, and I wanted to skate too. I saw the speed skaters training and I thought that looked pretty cool.”
Tandiman admits she was more interested in seeing how fast she could skate than whether she could learn a layback spin or land a jump combination.
“I was kind of a tomboy, and I just wanted to compete,” she said. “I wanted to race people. I wanted to be the fastest.”
It didn’t take long for speedskating to become the most anticipated part of her childhood.
“I would always look forward to Learn to Skate. It was my favorite part of the week," she said. "I’d try to get my homework done as fast as I could so I could get to the rink faster. I had a love for skating at a very young age.”
That love has carried Tandiman through grueling training, disappointing finishes, and halfway around the world to her first Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. She will skate the 1,000-meter long track race Wednesday night at the Gangneung Oval.
It’s a moment built on a lifetime of sacrifice, work and perseverance made easier by her passion for the sport, the support of her family, and the foundation provided by her LDS faith.
“It’s definitely part of who I am,” she said. “I think it’s helped me to have confidence in the things I do.”
She said it provides perspective on days when the demands of pursuing an elite athletic career can take over one’s life.
“It reminds me to be a good person and keeps that balance in my life,” she said. “It keeps me humble.”
She said her faith has provided comfort to her as she faces challenges on and off the ice.
“I think no matter what I do, it’s just a big part of who I am,” she said. “I think because it’s a big part of our beliefs that family is at the center of pretty much everything. That helps me a lot. I know that no matter what happens, no matter what I do, that my family is there for me, and that helps a lot when you’re in a sport, no matter what happens, there are people who love you and support you.”
Tandiman said the larger Mormon community, like LDS wards she’s visited during her travels around the world for her sport, have provided a bit of home.
“In any (place) I go to church, I can go there and feel comfortable,” she said. “When I feel homesick, it’s a little piece of home.”
Tandiman said she’s never considered serving a Mormon mission because she sees herself as an ambassador for her faith in her daily life.
“I just try to be a good example everywhere I go,” she said. “I do get a lot of questions. People are interested in what I believe and why. … Being from Utah, a lot of my teammates from around the U.S., well, people know, if you’re from Utah, there is a chance you’re Mormon. I’m like their go-to when they have questions.”
She said her LDS faith, specifically the church’s Word of Wisdom, which is something of a health code for members, has made the sacrifices necessary for success easier.
“Just following the Word of Wisdom makes it easier to set standards for myself with dieting and following a nutrition plan,” she said. “I’m just used to that.”
Most of all, Tandiman said, her faith helps her through the inevitable struggles that accompany the pursuit of lofty goals.
“It’s helped me through a lot of hard times in training and skating,” she said. “Being an elite-level athlete, there are a lot more lows than highs, there are a lot of disappointments, setbacks and hard training. And having that religious background helped me to get through those hard times.
"I don’t know if I can say why, but it does. Knowing I have that religion, that life isn’t all about my sport, there are things that I can turn to that help me get through those hard times.”
Her father said Tandiman’s success isn’t surprising, even though the fact she’s an Olympian is a bit surreal.
“She was always inclined to be an athlete,” said Edwin Tandiman, who didn’t play sports himself. “She was always active, and she was always very competitive. Whenever she got into doing something, she worked very hard, and she would always concentrate on doing it.”
Her parents never had to cajole or persuade her to practice or train.
“In fact, she would be the one who asked us to take her early,” he said laughing.
Edwin and his wife Christine will be in the stands when the second of their four children competes in the Olympics, and Edwin admits they’re surprised to be in this position.
“Not really, to be honest with you,” Edwin said when asked if he thought the 2018 Olympics was a possibility for Jerica. “We thought maybe she needed to take a little bit more time and experience, competing internationally. This was quite the surprise for me and my wife and my family.”
In fact, they were flying back from the Olympic Trials in Milwaukee when the Olympic speedskating team was announced.
“We started getting these texts congratulating us,” he said. “We were saying, ‘Is this serious?’ We tried to call her, but she was busy with the team and couldn’t answer. But then she texted us, and it’s just amazing. We’re still trying to digest everything.”
Edwin said there are no half-hearted endeavors for his daughter.
“She’s very dedicated,” he said. “She’s a very down-to-earth daughter, and she enjoys talking with people that she knows. At first she’s shy, but once she knows them, she’ll be their friend and buddy. But she’s very focused.”
He admits that being LDS and trying to compete at an elite level presents some challenges — specifically with training or competing on the Sabbath.6 comments on this story
“There were quite a few times when there were things we would not do,” he said. “I think it’s helped her quite a few times in her career, with challenges, with injuries, and just tough times. It helps her believe in herself, knowing she has a bigger purpose.”
Jerica Tandiman said that like her parents, the fact that she’s reached the Olympics is still a bit incomprehensible.
“I’m just going to go out there and race the best I can and be happy with the time,” she said. “I don’t have any really high expectations for myself. I want to improve and learn from the experience. A lot of the teammates I train with every day, this will be their second or third Olympics, so it’s cool to experience it with them.”