In the fast lane: Local speedskater continues to win (and think) big.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/11/10] The Winter Olympics have come and gone, and gone with them is mainstream America’s interest in winter sports. It’ll be another four years before we once again reignite our passion for curling or stare quizzically at Johnny Weir’s costume choices.

For some, however, the world of winter athletic competition is more than a quadrennial occurrence. To be sure, it’s the backbone of our seasonal tourism industry. Of course, we know all about the skiers and riders – the Teters, the Kearneys, and historically, the Chaffees. But what about some of the other winter sports?

Recently, I spent some time with the Rutland Rocks Curling Club in an effort to wrap my head around this icy phenomenon that seemed to be all over NBC’s Olympic coverage this year. And while the U.S. men’s and women’s teams were ultimately no match for the Canadians and the Swedes, I still tuned in faithfully – amazed by the fact that I was so riveted by something, which on the surface, appears to be so dull.

To be honest, my search for the lesser-known winter sports hasn’t been as epic of an undertaking as it perhaps could have – call it winter laziness, I suppose. Despite being a little biathlon-curious, I’ve yet to go down that road. While the idea of shooting a rifle while skiing seems like an awesome combination, I can think of at least two ways I’d probably end up injuring myself.

So I’ll guess I’ll take a look at another winter sport: speedskating. If I were actually able stand up on skates without endangering myself and everyone else around me, I’d give speedskating a try.

Speedskating is a fast paced, intense and physically demanding sport that in recent years has captivated audiences and become one of the Olympics’ most-anticipated competitions. Unless you spent the last month under a rock, names like Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis should ring a bell.

While we may not have any Olympic speedskaters locally, we do have an active speedskating club that boasts 15 members of all ages. One skater in particular, Dave Manfredi, has competed, ranked and medaled on the national and international level. I sat down with Manfredi recently at Spartan Arena in Rutland Town where he is operations manager.

In the arena’s conference room, Manfredi sets two pairs of skates on the table – short track and long track. He points out the mechanics of each boot – the blade’s offset placement on the short track skate, its “rock” or curve that is proportional to the radius of the track, the hinges on the long track or “clap” skates.

He then begins to give me a primer on the sport, explaining the differences between the two styles.

“It’s really two different disciplines,” Manfredi said. “Long track gives you more time and more options. It’s really about endurance; you got to know what you have in your tank.”

Short track, on the other hand, is more about strategy and strength.

“You have less room, less time. You’re thinking one lap ahead,” he said.

When pressed to choose, Manfredi picks long track.

“It’s the purer of the two. You can open up the whole technique of the sport.”

Manfredi’s enthusiasm for the sport is evident (and contagious). We’ve been sitting in the conference room for almost 20 minutes, and I have yet to ask him a single question. Eventually, I learn that the Rochester, N.Y., native became interested in speedskating as a teenager.

“Where I lived, skating was what you did,” he said, describing the scene at the neighborhood playground where he first encountered speedskaters racing during the winter months. “I knew it was what I wanted do,” he adds.

Despite skating recreationally, Manfredi never thought much about competing until his late 30s. When he arrived in Vermont, he joined up with the Green Mountain Speedskating Club, which was formed in Stowe in the late 1970s.

Manfredi frequently traveled to Stowe to skate, and eventually over to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he spent a lot time honing his skills with the Saratoga Winter Club.

“They taught how me to skate,” he said of the historic club, which traces its roots back to the 1880s.

Equipped with these skills, Manfredi started coaching back in Vermont. It was through coaching that he first got the itch for competition. While at a competition in 1988, a student he was coaching pulled him onto the ice for an exhibition race. From then on, he has been a regular on the competitive speedskating circuit.

And occasionally, he tears it up. In 1996, Manfredi placed 18th in the world for his age class at the World Masters Speedskating Games in Ste. Foy, Quebec. Then in 2000, he took the bronze at the International Masters’ Long Track Speedskating Championship in Milwaukee, and placed fourth in North America at another competition in Lake Placid.

The hits keep on rolling. Last month, Manfredi traveled to the Petit National Ice Center in Milwaukee to compete once again in the Masters’ Championship where he skated in 10 races, and placed fifth overall for his class, ages 60-65.

Despite the impressive showing, Manfredi remains critical of his technique.

“I had some bad starts,” he said of his performance. Nonetheless, he skated his personal best – 1:50 in the 1,000 meters.

The competition behind him, Manfredi now returns to coaching. He instructs skaters twice a week at Spartan Arena, where he attempts to make the sport accessible and enjoyable, especially to the younger members of the club who can get easily discouraged. Manfredi tries to make practices fun. He works to help skaters develop skills, without them realizing they are doing so, through games and contests.

“It’s not easy,” he said of the sport’s technical demands. “All the speed and power comes from technique and practice. It takes time, and a lot of people don’t stick with it.”

As we sit in the conference room, I notice the rink is beginning to fill up with bodies. Manfredi tells me that it’s a Rutland High School physical education class. Our conversation turns to the arena. Manfredi’s outlook is positive.

“It’s been a great transition,” he said the facility’s recent purchase by Castleton State College. “It’s a godsend to have them behind the rink.”

Looking forward, he is optimistic that the college will continue to maximize the space. While there are a number of opportunities available, Manfredi likes to think big.

“I’d like to see a 400-meter oval here someday,” he said enthusiastically. This may seem like a pipe dream, but Manfredi asserts that it’s not that far off.

“There’s no place to practice long track indoors on the East Coast,” he explains. While Lake Placid offers an outdoor oval, Manfredi notes that the uncontrollable weather conditions prevent skaters from training optimally. Right now, you have to travel to the Midwest to find an indoor oval.

Building on this vision, Manfredi imagines an eventual junior Olympic training center. Pie in the sky? Maybe, but in a community that is struggling to define itself, a home for elite winter athletes could be a very beneficial and viable niche.

Thinking bigger still, Manfredi foresees a facility such as this playing a key role if the Winter Olympics ever return to this region. Manfredi snaps out of the daydream.

“Probably not in my lifetime, though,” he said with a laugh.

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