In a prelude to the Olympic Speed Skating season Joey Mantia (USA) won last year’s World Mass Start title at the Gangneung Oval in South Korea. It was his first world title on ice, but the Florida born athlete already won multiple world titles in inline skating before he turned to the ice in 2011.
“What really got me over, was the fact that I got a feeling of redundancy in inline, going into the same routine every year. I did not want to find myself digging a hole and end up hating what I had loved my whole life, so I packed up all my stuff and moved to Salt Lake City”, he says.
Overcoming my stubbornness
The switch from wheels to ice did not come easy. Mantia says: “My biggest problem was that I was stubborn when I came over. I thought that I knew more than the coaches did, and that did not help me a lot. And there wasn’t the greatest program. They had a wheels-to-ice program in Salt Lake City, but that was kind of dying at the time that I came over, so I was in no man’s land. I trained with Kip Carpenter, who was training the all-round team at the time, but I was not really an allrounder. I wasn’t training with anybody who was significantly better to learn from.”
Although the technique has a lot of similarities, Mantia is still struggling to adapt to the ice to this very day: “I had to detrain myself not to double-push. Still, if you watch closely, you can see that bob up and down a little bit. There’s a sweet spot in inline skating, that I always felt was really efficient for me, that felt like home. Ice skating for me is not natural at all.”
Mantia does have other speed skaters to learn from at the moment: “I’m luckier now than in my early days on the ice. I skate with guys like Mitchell Whitmore (USA), get to follow them, pick up their timing and learn from that. Ice is so much less forgiving. When you get tired and you’re not perfect in your technique, it really burns you up.
“The hardest thing coming over from inline to the ice is the start. There’s nothing similar at all. With inline I was a runner. I got up on my toes, hips forward, I just leaned and reached out in front of me and pull the ground. I had one of the best starts in the world in inline, and on the ice I had one of the worst starts. I still don’t understand it completely. It’s not something that comes natural.”
Another major difference between inline and ice is the race format. Whereas in inline skating it’s mostly a bunch race to the line, on the ice the majority of events are time trials. “Time trialing is something I never had to do. I had to learn how to put the maximum effort in a race over a distance of 1500m or 5000m, whatever the distance is. Time trialing is great when it goes right. But that’s so rare for so many people. Most of the times everybody finishes kind of like: that wasn’t it… You can be so good at practice, and then you step on the line for a time trial and you think: why didn’t it go like it did in practice? That’s the hardest thing in long track Speed Skating: trying to figure out why it’s not the same when you race as it is when you practice.
“I rode the roller coaster really bad in the first three years in my ice career, and then I won my first World Cup gold medal: gold in the 1500m in Berlin. It was funny because it didn’t go too well at the time and that weekend we decided to train through the World Cup and get ready for the Olympic trials. So we had trained really hard for a couple of days and then I went out to win a gold medal. I had no idea what was going on. I think what might have made the difference was that I was just able to relax and settle in a little.”
The ace up the sleeve
Mantia is happy with the addition of the Mass Start race to the Olympic long track Speed Skating program for PyeongChang 2018.
“The mass start is right in my wheelhouse. For me it’s the ace up the sleeve. I always feel comfortable going into the mass start. I feel like I can win anytime. No matter what happens in the 1000m or the 1500m, I’ll always have that Mass Start trick, even when the skating doesn’t connect. If I don’t feel hundred percent, I can still make things work in the Mass Start. I feel confident enough in my skating if I step to the line, that I can win a field sprint.”
But apart from that field sprint, Mantia has different tricks up the sleeve to win Mass Start races. At the 2017 World Championships in Gangneung, he took gold after escaping from an early six-man breakaway to beat Alexis Contin (FRA) in a two-man final sprint to the line.
“That was really weird, I didn’t know we were even on the breakaway. We were halfway across the track, and I thought: what’s going on? I couldn’t believe they did not come with the lead group, but that’s the beauty of the mass start, anybody can win a medal. It’s kind of the mystique of the Mass Start. It’s wide open. I think as time goes on, you’re going to see less and less of that happen, because people are going to understand the tactics of the mass start better.”
Team USA have qualified two skaters for the Mass Start event in PyeongChang, a major advantage, says Mantia:
“If you have a team mate who is willing to work for you, just sit in front of you and chase all breakaways, that’s gold.”
Despite it often being a team effort, there’s only one winner in the race. Mantia:
“That’s a weird thing. It takes a big selfless act to go out there and help your team mate, especially at the Olympics, where you know anything can happen. We’ve got a system set up in our organization to award the helpers. They can get a pretty big benefit.”
Mantia is very dedicated to his Speed Skating, but he found ways to divert his mind. “I needed something to keep my mind off Speed Skating. I’m the kind of person who gets obsessed by it. I bought a piano when I first switched to the ice, and I went on Youtube. The beauty of Youtube nowadays is you can get anything. I’d watch what keys they played and copied that. It’s monkey see, monkey do. It’s nice to sit down and play, it takes your mind off. I’m good enough in playing the piano to trick people who don’t play piano, into believing that I play piano,” Mantia laughs.
When he chases Speed Skating glory in PyeongChang, Mantia he won’t be able to bluff his way onto the podium like he does on the piano. The 31-year-old American will have to be at the top of his Speed Skating game to add an Olympic medal to last year’s Mass Start world title.