Rock Hill native chases her dream to Vancouver

YOU DON'T HEAR a lot of Southern drawls at the Winter Olympics.

The U.S. Olympic team that has gathered in Vancouver mostly hails from states like Colorado or Minnesota - places where ponds freeze over and enormous mountains beckon.

Lauren Cholewinski, a long-track speedskater who grew up in Rock Hill and now lives in Utah, is an exception.

"When I first got out to Utah," Cholewinski said, "people looked at me like I was speaking French."

Cholewinski, 21, will participate in the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies Friday and compete four days later for the U.S. She has progressed from a roller rink in Rock Hill to the biggest stage for her sport. And she has done so quickly. Speedskaters generally reach their peak in their late 20s, so Cholewinski hopes to race in the 2014 Olympics and perhaps those in 2018 as well.

"I'm definitely going more to compete this time as opposed to being a contender for a medal," said Cholewinski, who attended Rock Hill Northwestern for her first three years of high school. "I'm still really new to the sport. Maybe the next Olympics will be more realistic as far as a medal, but right now it's a dream come true for me just to have made the Olympic team."

Speedskating is one of the few places in which Southerners can thrive in the Olympics. That's because the skills used in roller or inline skating - which don't require cold weather to participate - translate well to ice.

Cholewinski raced for many years on inline skates against Heather Richardson, who is from High Point and has qualified for three events in these Olympics.

In Rock Hill, though, the Cholewinskis often felt nearly invisible in a landscape dominated by more traditional sports.

"Lauren would make a national junior team in inline skating and have to go off to a competition," said Helen Cholewinski, her mother. "I'd sometimes have to beg and plead to get her out of school for a couple of days with excused absences. Folks were nice, but they just weren't familiar with the sport."

Helen Cholewinski financially supports her daughter. Like most Olympic sports, speedskating is a money pit. It is almost impossible to make more money through sponsorships than you spend on everything else.

Helen Cholewinski runs a computer software company that specializes in programs for trucking companies. Although she maintains an office in Rock Hill, Helen, who is divorced from Lauren's father, has moved to Utah to be closer to her three children.

"My mom is amazing," Lauren said. "She has allowed me to concentrate solely on skating, which has really helped."

Once skating ends, Lauren Cholewinski has been taking flying lessons and thinks one day she might want to be a pilot. She also has done some modeling and would like to do more.

It was her older brother, Clay, 22, who first moved to Utah chasing the Olympic dream. He attends the University of Utah while training.

Clay came close to making the 2010 Olympic team as a speedskater and will try again for 2014. The youngest Cholewinski sibling, Nicole, 18, is a competitive snowboarder who also has moved to Utah.

Lauren Cholewinski followed her brother to Utah in 2006 for her senior year of high school and has been there since. The three siblings live together in Salt Lake City in a house their mother owns.

At Rock Hill Northwestern, Cholewinski ran track for a season, but skating was always her passion.

"I just loved going to the rink," Cholewinski said. "That was the light of my life. I still love skating on the ice now - even the pain and the tiredness that goes with it."

Cholewinski will skate in one event at the Olympics - the 500 meters on Feb. 16, which is speedskating's shortest event.

"I'm being realistic," she said. "Based on my times coming in compared to the other girls, I'm hoping for a top-20 finish and would be ecstatic with a top-15."

She has moved into the Olympic Village in Vancouver with her team and plans to squeeze every ounce of joy out of the Olympic experience.

"Some people used to give me a hard time about skating in Rock Hill when I was growing up," Cholewinski said, laughing. "That doesn't really happen anymore."