Skating takes Olympics coach from North Carolina to Pyeongchang

Kimani Griffin
Kimani Griffin US Speedskating

Anthony Barthell thought that the first time he wore a pair speedskates would be his last.

"I actually got my speedskates and I couldn’t cross over," Barthell said Wednesday. "I remember going home to my father’s house and I told him I was ready to throw my equipment away, I’m done with this."

The High Point, N.C., native, heeding his father’s advice, stuck with it and has gone from a frustrated beginner to the seasoned coach of the U.S. short track speedskating team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

"I didn’t know anything about speedskating until I saw it in 1998, maybe," Barthell said. "I just remember seeing a little old lady with her arms swinging and a bucket helmet. And in 2002, I watched it again and I was, like, ‘I like this.’"

Today, Barthell, 40, is one of the few African American coaches in speedskating. He leads an eight-person squad that’s a mixture of Olympic veterans and rookies like 18-year-old Maame Biney, the first black female to race short track for the U.S. in the Winter Games.

Anthony Barthell, from High Point, N.C., is coaching the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating team.

He’s one of three North Carolinians on the long and short track Olympic teams. Whenever he sees long track skater Heather Bergsma, 28, a fellow High Point native, he calls her "H.P." — short for their home town.

He refers to long tracker Kimani Griffin, 27, of Winston-Salem as his little brother. They sometimes discuss their experiences in being two men of color in search of success in a predominantly white sport.

Kimani Griffin Alienfrogg US Speedskating

"I don’t know if it was the North Carolina factor or the fact that I’m half-black, but we hit it off early," said Griffin. "I think he brings different ideas, a different feng shui and swag to the team. I always say he my uncle. He’s a stand-up guy who’s always been with me."

Barthell’s journey from High Point to Pyeongchang is a long one that began at his home town roller rinks in 1991.

"A friend of mine said I should try roller speedskating because I like to go fast," he said.

He did roller speedskating, on four-wheel quad skates, for about a year. Then he decided to turn his athletic attention to his other passion, baseball.

He was set to play for Surry Community College in Dobson, N.C., but a shoulder injury scuttled his baseball career before it began.

Barthell moved to Florida in 1998, the year the Winter Games was held in Nagano, Japan. He watched the speedskating events and became intrigued with the sport.

His interest grew after he saw Joey Cheek, a former inline skater from Greensboro, N.C., win a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Cheek won gold and silver medals at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

Cheek, who’ll be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in May, will be Pyeongchang providing speedskating commentary for NBC.

“Joey Cheek’s from Greensboro, so we got to race each other," Barthell said. "I wanted to try speedskating. I missed skating, I hadn’t been on ice. I tried hockey skates first, and I was thinking ‘Okay, this is going to be easy.’"

But making the transition from wheels to steel was "the hardest thing I’ve ever done," Barthell says now.

"It’s so technical, you’re on millimeter-size blades and its 17 ½ inches (long) and you just don’t know what to expect," he said. "I always tell these guys that if you’re athletic it’s a lot harder to come and speedskate. If you’re not athletic, it’s a little easier. It goes against everything you learn as an athlete."

Barthell got the hang of it and raced short track for the Sunshine State Speedskating club.

In his late 20s, Barthell moved to Salt Lake City in 2006 and joined the Facilitated Athlete Sport Training (FAST) team development program to learn as much as he could about the sport and play catch up to younger, more experienced skaters.

Barthell never set his sights on becoming an Olympics skater. His goal was to skate fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials.

"I think I finished 20th, and by four or five-tenths of a second I missed out on the Top 16," he said. "But for me, it was a victory. For me to get where I was at the age I was, I thought was pretty decent."

The FAST program provided Barthell with a fast track into coaching. He was offered a position with program’s speedskating team, which led to him being named coach of the U.S. Junior World Short Track Team in 2012.

Two years later, he was an as assistant coach at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He moved to Australia the following year to run that country’s short track national team.

"I loved it, Australia reminded me of a super laid-back U.S.," he said. "I would definitely move back there."

But for now, Barthell is savoring the Olympic moment in South Korea and loving the influx of skaters of color like Biney, Griffin and Erin Jackson, who’ll become the first African American female Olympic long track speedskater when the Winter Games begin.

"This is, for me, is a huge step," he said. "Having black athletes and the black community being able to see and say ‘We can get on the ice, we can learn how to skate, we can end up being up here just like Maame, Shani Davis, Erin Jackson.’ That’s the biggest thing."

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas