Ian Quinn, LS '12, is On the Brink of Securing a Spot On the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Team
As graceful and elegant as long-track speed skating looks, for Affton’s Ian Quinn, the sport comes down to one thing: Pain.
“You have to find your threshold of how much can you hurt and how long can you hurt for?” said Quinn, in what might not be a great recruiting pitch for the sport. “In a 5K, you try to find something to focus on other than the pain because most of these events hurt. The time trials hurt a lot. You’re trying to find a way to keep your body motivated without focusing on the lactic buildup in the legs.
“I describe speed skating to people as it’s as technically challenging as a golf swing or a baseball swing except you have to do it in a squat position for six to 13 minutes. You have an incredible amount of lactic acid building up in your legs and you need to maintain the technique because if you’re not efficient you can’t skate fast. That’s why I think skating struggles a lot in the U.S., because it’s one of those sports that looks awesome but it’s very difficult to get to a level where you feel competent at it because of how difficult technically and physically it is. You can’t go in the backyard and speed skate like you can shoot a basketball.”
Quinn has conquered the pain, because he’s gotten very good at speed skating. Quinn, 27, is with the U.S. national speed skating team, based at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City. That’s where’s he training, he hopes, for the 2022 Winter Olympics. His results in the final races before the coronavirus pandemic-delayed speed skating circuit were promising: At the Four Continents Championships in February, Quinn took the bronze in the mass-start race, and at the World Single Distance Championships (which has the European skaters who aren’t at the Four Continents) in February in Salt Lake City, he finished 12th in mass start.
A good fit
The mass start, which made its debut at the 2018 Winter Olympics, has turned out to be perfect for Quinn. He got his start competing in short-track speed skating, long track’s rambunctious younger sibling — which is contested on a hockey-sized rink rather than a 400-meter oval such as a long track — and has enough pushing and shoving to make it resemble NASCAR on ice. Long-track mass start races bring from 16 to 24 skaters on the big oval at once, making it a far more strategic race than traditional long track, which is mostly skaters going against the clock rather than each other. In mass start, there’s drafting and passing and stretches at the finish line.
“I’m enjoying long track, I feel at home at it,” he said. “But I miss short track. I love racing. It’s a different mentality. Short trackers go with the flow. There’s so much luck involved. Things can go well and then something happens you have no control over. In long track when you fail, it’s usually your fault. They are two very different worlds. I identify a lot with short track, which is why I’ve found a home in mass start.”
Quinn has lived in Salt Lake City, where the U.S. speed skating program is based, since he was 18. He first was with the short-track program and now with the long-trackers. When he’s not skating, he’s majoring in accounting at the University of Utah, but he’s skating a lot. Most mornings he’s on the ice for two hours, skating from 80 to 120 laps. On a 400-meter oval, that’s up to 30 miles on some days. Speed skaters also do a lot of cycling to build up endurance.
The toughest part of being a long-track speedskater from St. Louis is that you can’t really be a long-track speedskater in St. Louis because there’s nowhere to do it. In fact, there are only two indoor long-track rinks in America (in Milwaukee and Salt Lake City), which is why Quinn, like everyone who doesn’t live near those cities, starts out in short-track. Still, St. Louis has sent more than its share of skaters to the Olympics, and a St. Louis-area speed skater was on every U.S. Olympic team from 1968 to 2006.
Quinn’s entrée to the sport came as his parents looked for an outlet for their high-energy 8-year-old. Quinn’s godfather’s kids were speed skating, so Quinn’s parents decided to try that.
At the outset, he wasn’t very good at it, but he stuck with it and gradually got better. Basically, he just had fun doing it.
He skated with two clubs, the Gateway Speedskating Club and Metro (now St. Louis) Speedskating, belonging to both so he could get on the ice twice as much. And the coaches he worked with in those clubs, all volunteers, such as Russ Owen, Tony Knickmeyer and Joe Gier, were able to transfer the lessons he learned when he’d go to skating camps in Milwaukee into practices in St. Louis.
“I was very lucky they had a good technical eye that they were able to help me with that,” Quinn said.
After not making the U.S. team for the 2014 Olympics in short track, Quinn decided to put the distance experience he got running track and cross country at Lutheran South High and tried long track. It could lead him to the Olympics.
And while all those laps can get a little mind-numbing at times, amid the pain, there can be satisfaction cruising along at about 40 mph.
“To me,” he said, “it’s freeing to be out on the ice, skating that fast.”