My wife and I are runners and during this very cold and icy winter in our hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we have had to go inside on many occasions to run. On those days we are always grateful that our city hosts one of the largest indoor running tracks in the country at the Pettit National Ice Center. The running track is so large that each mile is only three and a half laps (a high school track, for comparison, is four laps to a mile). We know the track well, having run many, many laps there this past weekend and over the past two months as we continue to train for a marathon in April.
This amazing indoor facility which hosts this large running track was not built for runners, but rather for Olympic speed skaters. The facility houses one of four Olympic 400 meter ice ovals in the United States and two ice hockey rinks, all of which the running track encircles. Prior to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 the Pettit National Ice Center was the official training center for Olympic skaters. Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden, and Dan Jansen all trained here. Shani Davis, a member of the current US Olympic team, lives in the Chicago area and trains both in Milwaukee and Salt Lake City today. It is an exciting place to be on any day as there are regularly world class athletes training or competing.
As we were completing our training run last weekend we were fortunate to witness the beginning of a special speed skating competition that was taking place on the Olympic oval. It just so happened that high school age speed skaters from all around the United States were in town for the 2014 US Junior Olympics Long Track Championships. This competition, while not the Winter Olympics in Soshi, was a prelude to that level of competition. We were told by the coaches and officials that several of the young men and women competing in this event would most likely be skating in the next winter Olympics in four years.
Inspired to be so close to forty amazing skaters, we stayed for over an hour to watch them compete. We were able to stand so close to the ice that we could actually feel the drafts they created as they sped by us, one pair at a time. As inspired as we were by the athletes, we were equally inspired by the one hundred or so spectators and coaches that were present to cheer on the skaters. The spectators were mostly the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters of the skaters. We talked to several spectators from at least ten different states who had all taken time off of work and school, traveled countless miles, and undoubtedly spent lots of money to be at this event, all to support these young people.
We spoke with many of the parents and coaches and heard stories about the early mornings, late nights, and many weekends that they had each dedicated over the years to traveling and cheering on their favorite skater. The sacrifices they were each making, including flying to Milwaukee for this competition, were real and so was the joy on their faces as they cheered and yelled encouragement from the stands at the top of their lungs.
There are only four Olympic length ice ovals in the United States and so traveling great distances as a speed skater or a supporter of speed skaters is a given for this sport. To help us understand the commitment of these fans to their athletes imagine if the young person in your life was a soccer, baseball, or basketball player and there were only four fields or courts in the entire United States on which to compete. If that were the case, you might very well be doing the same thing.
As I watched the Olympics in Sochi this past week, especially the speed skaters, I kept thinking back to last weekend. I found myself not just watching the skaters, but the fans in the stands who were there to cheer for them. I thought of all the hours that the athletes had put in on the ice, as well as how much the skaters’ coaches and families had sacrificed to support them in getting to this pinnacle of their sport.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. My wife and I witnessed last week that it clearly takes a village to raise a speed skater, as well. I am sure the same is true for bobsledders, ski jumpers, hockey players, and snowboarders, too. I am also sure that it is true for any endeavor that any person chooses to pursue, sports related or otherwise, one person cannot do it alone. Sometimes we are the one pursuing a goal or overcoming a challenge, and sometimes we play the part of the village, supporting and cheering on someone we care about as he or she chases a goal or works to overcome a challenge.
There are at least two “take aways” in all of this for me. First, when you are working hard to pursue an important goal or are facing a tough challenge, be sure to surround yourself with a village of support. It will feel better on both the good days and the bad. Second, when you know someone who is pursuing an important goal or a touch challenge, be part of their village and cheer for them “at the top of your lungs.”