“We’re feeling pain that is unimaginable,” said Brittany Bowe who, long before becoming the fastest woman in the world over 1000m, thought speed skating looked, well, easy. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The world’s best skaters have a way of making this most rigorous of sports look a breezy enterprise. The liquid stride, the elegant pendulum swing of the arm, other arm tucked behind the back for aerodynamics' sake, one foot over the other in the turns like a two-step -- it all somehow conspires to create the illusion of a pre-dinner stroll.
“At the end of a race, your legs hurt so bad you can’t bend your knees. You taste blood in your mouth,” Bowe told Olympics.com, a little laugh in her voice, addressing the paradox of how top skaters make a sport so lung-busting and brutal seem effortless. “You can’t stand up; you can’t sit down. You can’t bend over to untie your skate because you’ll cramp if you do.”
Bowe’s road to the agonies and ecstasies of the speed-skating oval was long, winding and highly unlikely. “I guess there’s just something in the water down there,” she jokes about launching a niche, cold-weather sporting career from her humid hometown of Ocala, Florida.
There’s no ice rink in Ocala. It's about as far as you can get from speed skating’s cultural home in the Netherlands’ frozen north, where Bowe won last year’s 1000m world championships and re-set the world record with a flawless performance.
“I was at a birthday party at a local [roller] rink for a classmate and there was a coach there and she invited me out to a practice to try inline skating,” Bowe, now 33, remembered of that fateful day so long ago. “I just kind of stumbled onto it.”
That coach was none other than Renee Hildebrand, who Bowe credits with “pulling the best out” of her athletes and cobbling together a team whose members constantly challenged each other to go faster and better. Bowe’s first skating coach is a major reason why, today, three members of USA’s Olympic speed skating team hail from the Sunshine State, where the only ice you’re likely to find is in the drinks.
What Hildebrand saw in Bowe, even at such a tender age, was a pure talent waiting to have the rough edges polished off.
And that didn’t take long.
Bowe went on to win 32 world championship medals (eight gold, one silver, and two bronze -- and a score of further prizes during her days in the junior division).
First love for basketball
But inline skating was far from young Bowe’s only sport. It wasn’t even her first sport.
“I was always on or near the court,” said Bowe of the way the echoes and squeaks of a basketball gym formed a soundtrack for her early years. “I’d be [putting on demonstrations] dribbling the ball at halftime of my dad’s [a high school basketball coach] games when I was really little. Basketball definitely was my first love.”
Along those same lines, Bowe locates the decision to quit football (soccer in her native USA) in her early teens to focus on basketball as her “first heartbreak.”
Her skills at the point guard position brought a full-ride basketball scholarship to the D1 program at Florida Atlantic University in nearby Boca Raton in 2006. But far from an easy acceptance, the offer created another tough decision for Bowe, who was offered an opportunity to move to Salt Lake City and try her hand at racing on ice -- a challenge many of her inline rivals and teammates were accepting.
In 2010, with four years of college basketball behind her, Bowe had a plan to pursue a pro career in Europe with an eye to an eventual bid in the WNBA. But she was being pulled in two directions. Her one-time inline teammates were preparing to hunt podium places and precious medals at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, having made the successful switch from wheels to blades.
Shaky start on the slick stuff
“I just kind of had a change of heart,” admitted Bowe, the fog clearing on a coveted path to the Olympics on ice rather than hardwood. “I thought: if they [her former inline competitors] can do it, then so can I. And I walked down to my basketball coach’s office and said: OK, I know we had plans but I’m going to move to Salt Lake City and become an Olympic speed skater.”
It was the start of something big. Historic even. But there was one small problem. Bowe, despite winning most on offer on wheels, never skated on ice.
“One of the first times I was in town [Salt Lake City], the coach I was working with told me to just get out on the ice with the short track team during their practice and skate around,” Bowe recalled of that terrifying moment in Utah, where she was starting fresh and far away from the comforts of her sunny Florida. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so intimidated in my life. It was a very uncomfortable and scary moment for me. I felt like: I don’t belong here.”
But all that passed.
After only a year on ice, she was invited to join the national team. A year after that she was turning heads in international competition. The rest, as they say, is history. Bowe went on to win the overall sprint gold and break the world 1000m record in 2014 and she made her long-dreamed-about Olympic debut, at the age of 26, that same year.
“I was up-and-coming and I’d set the world record going into the Sochi Games, but I was still immature in the sport,” Bowe said of her disappointing first taste of the Olympics -- a dream destination ever since Coach Hildebrand took her to the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 to watch icons of the day like fellow Floridian Jennifer Rodriguez and Apolo Ohno make it look oh-so-easy. “I almost tried too hard in every race.”
If Sochi was a rude awakening, the road to PyeongChang four years later was a nightmare. Bowe sustained a concussion, colliding with a teammate in practice, that kept her off the ice for the entire 2016/17 season. The injury also brought with it the kind of pain that, unlike the overt physical agonies of racing, was hard to understand and even harder to admit to.
“Before that, I had never experienced panic, anxiety or any type of mental instability in my life,” she said of the crash that left her suffering symptoms of post-concussion syndrome and POTS (that affects blood flow and can make it hard to stand, let alone skate). “Eight months after my concussion I could barely function as a human. I wasn’t on ice. I wasn’t skating. It was by far the most trying year of my life.
“One of my strengths was always my mental fortitude,” she said, the challenges of the injury's aftermath still fresh in her eyes over the zoom chat. “And now I couldn't even go to the grocery store without having a panic attack.”
With the support of her mother and sister, and mustering the courage to make herself vulnerable, Bowe found the road back. “It was hard because, as an athlete, you don’t want to show that you’re mentally weak or unstable,” she said. “It’s a weird dynamic.”
PyeongChang bronze a team effort
Bowe managed to finish fourth, just off the podium, in her favourite 1000m race at the PyeongChang Games, but she won a bronze medal in the team pursuit. Considering all the help she received building back from her injury, and the long stretch away from racing, Bowe believes it was fitting that she reached the podium in a team event. “It was a dream come true after that year and a half I went through.”
Now, at the peak of her skating, Bowe (who finished outside the medals in her two races so far in Beijing -- the 500m and the 1500m) is taking aim once more at that elusive individual gold in her strongest discipline.
“Gold. It’s my ultimate goal,” she said, knowing the hard road it took to arrive at exactly this stage. “Anything less than gold is going to feel like mission not accomplished. You have to be careful when you set a goal that high, but that’s what I’m driven to do.”
Her performance at the world championships last year in the Netherlands was as close to perfection as she could have hoped for. In Heerenveen -- the ancestral beating heart of speed skating in the Lowlands -- this self-proclaimed “Florida girl” set an empty Thialf Arena alight with her mastery of the 1000m.
Solo Heerenveen heroine
There were no fans in the building, due to the COVID-19 protocols, but the message Bowe sent in setting a new world record will certainly have been heard loud and clear by the fancied Dutch women’s team who’ve historically dominated the long track Olympic medals.
On her own, with no team to lean on this time, Bowe showed just where guts and determination and firmly planted roots can take you. With big Olympic ambitions driving her forward, she didn’t seem to mind putting the medal around her own neck atop the podium as the Star Spangled Banner echoed to the rafters.
“That performance [in Heerenveen] is what makes me feel very confident [for Beijing],” she said of setting the new global standard in her “favourite race [the 1000m] -- a cool combination of speed and power and endurance” as she calls it.
“There’s a target on my back now because no one’s gone faster than I have,” added Bowe, now racing from the front, all eyes on her, and with her own firmly set on a beckoning Beijing horizon. “I’m right where I want to be because, really, what I love to do is race.”