Fredricks hopes for one last Olympic moment
It seems like only yesterday that Tucker Fredricks burst onto the U.S. long-track speedskating scene, a diminutive teenager from Janesville with explosive speed and the promise of great things to come.
The 2003 junior world champion in the 500 meters, Fredricks by and large exceeded expectations over the next decade, winning 30 World Cup medals and a pair of overall World Cup titles.
There were seasons, 2007 and 2010 in particular, when he was unquestionably among the top two or three sprinters in the world.
But in two shots at the Winter Games, two chances to cement his legacy with an Olympic medal, Fredricks was pretty much a non-factor. The Craig High graduate finished 24th in Turin in 2006 and 12th in Vancouver in 2010.
Now 29, he is preparing for what he said likely will be his final Olympics, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The first step is the U.S. Single-Distance Championships/World Cup qualifier Oct. 25-27 at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City.
Fredricks has been long respected in the international speedskating community, but he knows the only way to break the bonds of anonymity in the U.S., a nation largely apathetic about his sport except during a two-week window every four years, is to stand somewhere, anywhere, on the Olympic podium.
“Well, I should probably say (it doesn't matter), but I have to say it does,” Fredricks said after a recent training session at the Pettit National Ice Center. “I know at the end of the day I have my family and my wife. But, yeah, that's what I've been skating all these years for. To say I don't want a medal would be a lie. I'm still going for that Olympic dream.”The question is whether Fredricks still has the top-end speed to be a medal contender in the 500.
He is coming off the worst season of his career, having reached the podium just once in 2012-'13. He has a bulging disc in his back from years of training in that squatty, hunched-over skating position. And he is nearly six years removed from the U.S. record of 34.31 seconds he set Nov. 17, 2007, in Calgary.
“Absolutely, he's still fast enough,” said U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “It would be one thing if he didn't have the ability to open at a world-class level (in the first 100 meters). He is still able to make that top speed.”Fredricks said he believed he was capable of again reaching or even exceeding his fastest times and pointed to friend and peer Joji Kato of Japan, the former world-record holder, for inspiration.
“Joji and I were talking about it last year,” Fredricks said. “His personal (best) was in 2005 and mine was in 2007. We couldn't believe it had been that long since we set personal bests. Once you get to a certain level it's hard to achieve those times. But finally last year Joji set another personal best. I was excited for him and it was inspirational for me because if he can do it, I can do it.”The key for Fredricks going into Sochi will be training smart, taking care of his back, sharpening every little facet of his technique and building toward a peak performance in February.
“The recovery time, being older, I see it's taking a little longer,” he said. “I definitely have to be more aware of the amount of training I do and I have to be smart about it. I know certain workouts are going to aggravate my back. I'll do therapy with our trainer and then ice and stretching after those workouts.”In 2010, Fredricks married Eriko Seo, a two-time Olympic speedskater from Japan. She is retired from competition and works in a Japanese market near the couple's home in Salt Lake City.
“My wife wants me to skate as long as I can, but I think this will be it,” Fredricks said. “It's time to go down a different path.”Shimabukuro said getting Fredricks in top form for the Olympics would be a process and that steady improvement over the next four months was more important than World Cup results.
“As long as we focus on the process, executing his races, the results will take care of themselves,” Shimabukuro said. “We can't just look at the end result without figuring out the 99.9% between.
“We want to make sure his season is timed well to be at his fastest in Sochi. I see a lot of guys that come out of the gate swinging and they're at a high level early and that is tough to maintain. If he's somewhere around top five to eight he's in the game. You can see the podium from 10th place.
“He's still capable of winning. We just have to make sure we don't stray from the process.”