After Olympics, locals zip into speedskating

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The road to speedskating glory in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing starts in places like the Royal Oak-based Wolverine Sports Club.

It’s a niche sport, with only about 3,000 participants nationwide, said Wolverine Club coach Dave Rondot — but in the wake of this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, he said local interest has ramped up.

Alec Vandegriff, left, West Michigan Skating Club, Martin Rose-Harriott, center, Markham, and John School, GESS, race around the track in their Junior B race during the Michigan Short Track Speed Skating State Meet, Saturday, March 4, 2018, at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube.

“Before the Olympics, we’d have maybe eight-nine kids on Saturday,” he said. “Afterward, we’re getting 19-20. It’s a small sport, but we open our arms to anyone who wants to stay.”

The Wolverine Sports Club on Sunday hosted the Michigan Speedskating Association’s Short-Track State Championships at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. The skaters ranged in age from 5 to older than 70.

Among those competing: 11-year-old Ann Arbor resident and Wolverine Club member Matteo Capodivacca, who says he’s attracted to the sport’s speed.

“I was doing figure skating and I ended up going really fast, which was fun,” the sixth-grader said. “I was watching the Olympics and I got into it and told my parents about it. Now it’s my favorite thing to do.

“I just love going really fast,” he said with a grin. “My favorite part is having the wind in my face.”

Jason Soucie, 9, of Ann Arbor, center, gets a little friendly harassment from his little brother Keith, 5, right, while waiting for their heats to start with fellow Wolverine Sports Club member Told Nesvizskiy.

Also skating for the Wolverine Club on Sunday was 67-year-old Judy Smouter, who set records in multiple events in her age group, including the Masters 60-69 500 meter race.

Smouter, a member of the national speedskating team from 1971-75, said she still gets a charge out of the sport.

“I’m still very competitive, even at my age,” she said. “It’s also good fitness. It’s a beautiful sport; there’s a rhythmic swing to it.”

Rondot said interest in the sport spikes every four years after the Winter Olympics, although he said not many stick with it.

“I say speedskating is every man’s sport, because you don’t need a lot of money to succeed,” Rondot said. “It costs $20 per session, and you need probably about $350 initially for skates. That’s a lot cheaper than other sports like hockey.

“All the young ones think they’re going to the Olympics. That’s why they come out. But it’s a revolving door. Out of 50, maybe two or three stay. Most people don’t stick with things, and if they don’t nail it the very first time, they quit. It takes true effort to get good, and most people don’t want to do that.

“Those who do stay, though, are very committed, and it becomes a lifelong passion,” Rondot said.

In addition to speedskating, the Wolverine Sports Club has cycling and cross-country skiing. “Cycling was having a huge problem attracting kids,” Rondot said. “Speedskating was this little wing of the club, but now we’re bringing in the kids.”

Marcello Gabs Ehning of GESS, left, and Rory O'Brien of Lakewood are a couple of the 3,000 participants that have taken to speedskating. The two race around a turn as they warm up.

Still, it’s difficult to get ice time at arenas, Rondot said. “Hockey owns almost every rink, and it’s hard to get ice time at a time that’s conducive to kids,” he said. “But we manage.

“A lot of kids don’t fit into team sports for whatever reason; maybe they’re not the right size for hockey,” Rondot said. “But when they come here, they fit in. It’s an intimidating sport in a non-intimidating culture. It develops self-confidence and character traits that’ll help them succeed in anything they do.”

Rondot said speedskating is unique because different age groups share ice time.

“Not many sports allows young kids to rub elbows with elite athletes at the same event,” he said. “This is a sport where parents don’t have to sit in the stands — they can be out on the ice with their kids.

“In most sports, kids only interact with other kids their age, but in speedskating, they learn how to talk to older kids and adults, which I think is a valuable skill in life,” Rondot said.

His father introduced him to the sport when he was a child, Rondot said, and entered him into a race when he was in the eighth grade. “I made the finals wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt,” he said.

“Then, when I was 45, I read an article about the Wolverine Club, and I went home, bought a pair of skates and I’ve been involved for 25 years. I wanted to be national champion for my age group, which at the time was 50. I was at the national meet twice. I’ll be 70 in September, and if I can get back in shape I’ll take another stab at the national championship.”

The Wolverine Sports Club has produced more than 100 national champions in cycling, along with Sheila Young, a three-time world speedskating champion who won three medals, including gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics.

“For 90 percent of these kids, they’re not going to the Olympics,” Rondot said. “But they get a lot out of it, it’s fun, and they get valuable experience in things that go beyond sports.”

When asked if he dreams of competing in the Olympics someday, Capodivacca shrugged.

“I don’t know, maybe,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of fun.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN