North Carolina becomes a hotbed of Olympic speedskating

Heather Bergsma of the U.S. competes during the women's 1,000 meters speedskating race at the Gangneung Oval at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea.
Heather Bergsma of the U.S. competes during the women's 1,000 meters speedskating race at the Gangneung Oval at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. AP

The U.S. Olympic speedskating team at the 2018 Winter Olympics has a North Carolina accent.

Long track skater Heather Bergsma and short track coach Anthony Barthell hail from High Point, N.C., while long tracker Kimani Griffin is from Winston-Salem.

The Tar Heel State isn’t known as a hotbed for ice sports. But the state has a reputation as a mecca for inline skating, which has increasingly become a key supplier of talent for the U.S. ice speedskating program.

"Through inline speedskating we’ve kind of pursued the Olympic dream, and the only way real way to do that is to switch over to ice," said Griffin, who is skating in his first Winter Games. "I’m not really sure why, but I know North Carolina and Florida are hotbeds for some of the best athletes as far as inline skating goes."

US Speedskating/Alienfrogg US Speedskating/Alienfrogg

The state has a distinguished history in inline skating and a track record of those inliners going from wheels to steel.

Joey Cheek, who won gold and silver medals at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and a bronze medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City, is from Greensboro.

His Olympic exploits have earned him induction in the Noth Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in May and a job in the broadcast booth doing speedskating commentary for NBC in Pyeongchang during this year’s Winter Games.

Bergsma is participating in her third Winter Games after finishing 6th in the women’s team pursuit at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

She has struggled so far in Pyeongchang, finishing eighth in the women's 1,000 meters on Wednesday and eighth in the 1,500 meters on Monday. She's scheduled to compete in the women's 500 meters on Sunday and a mass start race on Feb. 24.

US Speedskating/Alienfrogg US Speedskating/Alienfrogg

Barthell never competed in the Olympics, but enjoyed a successful short track skating career that led to him becoming head coach of Australia’s national short track speedskating team in 2014 and the U.S. short track team boss in 2016.

They are all part of a growing core of inline skaters from non-traditional ice skating areas such as Florida, Texas and California who are helping stock the U.S. ice speedskating ranks.

Six of the 13 members of the long track speedskating team in Pyeongchang have inline backgrounds. Thirteen inline skaters have won 11 of 18 individual Olympic long track medals for the U.S. since 2002.

"Knowing that the kids from North Carolina are on the Olympic team, knowing that they came from inline skating kind of gives a solid, you know, ‘Yoo-hoo!’" said Scott Hiatt, a High Point resident and former champion inline skater. "It was kind of set in motion years and years ago, and now the fruit from that seed is growing."

It all goes back to Bob Byerly, who founded High Point’s Rol-a-Rink Speed Skating club in 1958.

Convinced that roller skate racing would someday become an Olympic sport, Byerly shifted his attention from operating three rinks in the High Point area to coaching his speed team.

"We had a really great team and a great coach from about 1975 to 1999," said Hiatt, who helped run the program with Shannon Shuskey after Byerly retired in 1999. "Our neighbors in Greensboro kind of fed off us as well, so we had a really good rivalry going."

The High Point team started producing champions like Hiatt, who won three world titles between 1992 and 1999 and more than 40 national indoor and outdoor titles. The tradition continued with inliners such as Bergsma and Griffin.

"I grew up skating with Heather since I was nine. I joined the team in 1998-99," Griffin said.

Other clubs in the state were also cranking out world-class skaters. The Piedmont Speed Club developed Cheek, further enhancing the state’s reputation as an inline capital and spurring hardcore skaters to flock to North Carolina.

"We were having people come from Florida, Michigan, driving from Danville, Va., from Hickory, N.C.," Hiatt said. "We were pulling in a lot of kids."

Shuskey, who trained Bergsma and Griffin, said North Carolina was stacked with "phenomenal athletes" who were driven to succeed in inline and had a burning desire to become Olympians.

"When these guys were kids, for example, Heather (Bergsma) would call me and say ‘Hey, what else can I do training-wise?’ other than what she’s doing," he said. "Her mom and other parents had to slow their kids down because they wanted to train and work hard because they wanted to be the best, whether it was in the country, the region or the world."

Inline skaters make excellent ice speedskaters because of their intense training regimen, according to Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic speedskater who founded a Washington, D.C., learn to skate program.

"They’re just animals, they train so much harder," Mills said. "They’re racing more frequently, they’re doing long distance races. There’s thousands of registered youth inline speedskaters in the U.S. There are only hundreds of ice speedskaters. The competition is so much higher to make junior national teams in inline, to make world teams. So from an early age, they have to be good."

The transition to blades is difficult because of the different mechanics involved. Griffin said it’s taken him six years to feel good on ice.

"This is a sport that’s so unorthodox and so unnatural as far as body position," he said. "The physics of the sport that allow you to go fast just aren’t things that the body naturally wants to do. I think it takes most people no less than 5-6 years to be like really good."

While Griffin has successfully made the transition to ice speedskating, he hasn’t lost the passion for inline.

He recently bought a new pair of inline skates and is considering trying out for the U.S. inline speedskating team when his ice season is done.

"It was kind of a joke at first, like ‘Oh, maybe I’ll skate World Cup selection or world championship selection for inline,’" said Griffin, who skated inline for the U.S. from 2006-07. "Then it was ‘Oh, maybe I should do that, I’m in the best shape of my life’ and it’s kind of like my pastime." 

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas