The USA may be one of the world’s biggest sporting superpowers, but when it comes to Short Track Speed Skating, they are still outsiders.
John-Henry Krueger (USA) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
USA athletes have won just two Short Track Speed Skating silver medals at the past two Olympic Winter Games: John-Henry Krueger, now representing Hungary, claimed one in the 1000m at PyeongChang 2018, while the Men’s Relay team came second at Sochi 2014. The nation’s last Short Track Speed Skating Olympic gold came from Apolo Ohno at Turin 2006.
Women's Relay Team USA with Julie Letai, Corinne Stoddard, Kristen Santos and Maame Biney at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CHN) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
They are all training mates in Salt Lake City – home of the Utah Oval, USA’s Short Track Speed Skating capital – although Santos believes that limited training facilities elsewhere is part of her country’s relatively small talent pool.
“I think, to be an American Short Track skater, you do need to live in Utah… or at least, it makes things much easier,” she said.
Kristen Santos (USA) at the ISU Four Continents Short Track Speed Skating 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“It’s also tough for the skaters who live here to choose to do the sport full time, because quite often you have to pick between school and skating. Your option is the University of Utah, and that’s a half hour drive from the Oval. So quite often training will be at the same time as class.
“It means you have to decide whether to go to school or train, and whether it’s going to be worth it for you to miss college. A lot of athletes decide it isn’t, so the US loses potential skaters. A lot of people get caught up like that, and that’s why it took me nine years to graduate.”
But things are improving.
Kristen Santos (USA) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (JPN) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“We have started to have a good set up for skaters recently with some community colleges, which has been a step in the right direction,” said Santos. “Short Track athletes can get free tuition, so hopefully we will see more athletes coming through.”
Delaying academia has been Short Track Speed Skating’s gain in her case, however. Over the last couple of seasons, the super-quick Santos has proven to be a skater who can contend for medals, making it onto the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating podium in Nagoya for the first time in 2019/20.
Kristen Santos (USA) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“Everything is going really good,” the 26-year-old Santos said about her current training. “We’ve a pretty young team – I’m the oldest – and we’re working hard.
“Maame has speed unlike anyone else, and Corrine is a racer – she knows how to turn it on. Then there’s Julia Letai, who is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. And there are a lot of good boys, too.”
Santos is the latest guest on the ISU’s official pod, The Ice Skating Podcast, which you can listen to here. In the episode, she discusses everything from being inspired by Simone Biles’ statements on mental health, through to her unusual nickname, ‘Puff’.
Particularly striking, though, is how the American is working on mentally convincing herself that she is no longer a plucky underdog.
“I’ve previously gone into races thinking: I’m in a race with Suzanne Schulting, I’m racing for second place,” said Santos in the podcast. “I have focused on the names on the line. But I’m working on not thinking that way and focusing on being the best I can be. They’re amazing – but that doesn’t mean I can’t be amazing as well.”
Get the mindset to match her ability and Santos believes she can lead the USA back to the Olympic podium.