Beep – the alarm goes off, it is 6am. It is dark. A small group of skaters drag themselves out of bed, throw some warm clothes on and grab their skating bags. We walk outside and fumble around in the darkness trying to activate the lights on our bicycles. 40 minutes later we are warming up on the ice in Ijsbaan Twente, in Enschede, near the Dutch-German border – we are the only people there. It is still dark.
There is something unusual about this team. We train in the Netherlands, but we are not Dutch. We aren’t even European – we are Australians. In the summer of 2008, Desly Hill, former Australian inline skating coach and now Dutch national inline coach, hatched the most audacious of plans – an Australian long track speed skating team. There has never been one before, only lone individuals training under a coach. Two current Australian junior inliners and three seniors who had all but quit the sport got the call, and by October we were assembling in Enschede, taking the first tentative steps onto the ice, and on an incredible journey.
Fast forward to Vancouver, February 2010. Sophie Muir becomes the first Australian long track speed skater in 16 years. She is also the first female olympic long tracker from Australia… ever. She has only been ice skating for 16 months. Three other skaters on the team were at the top of the reserve list for the games, but barely missed out. It is scarcely believable that less than one year ago, only one of us had even qualified for a world cup race. It is even less believable that two years ago, only one of us had ever stepped on the ice wearing speed skates. To understand how this happened, we should first examine some of the characters in our extraordinary play.
7 years ago, Sophie Muir quit inline skating after winning a career total of seven world championship titles (six of them junior). She was backpacking around Europe in the summer and came across old friend Desly Hill in Gijon, Spain during the 2008 inline world championships. A few weeks later she was lacing up a pair of ice skates and had agreed to “give it a try” for a month to see if she liked it. One month became two months. Two months became three. Three months quickly became sixteen, and the transformation from beginner to olympian has been so rapid that she still gets quizzical looks from people when she mentions that she is a speed skater from Australia.
3 years ago Joshua Lose woke up in hospital after colliding with a car while riding his bicycle. He had severe head trauma and had lost his sense of smell. It would be several weeks before he could even hold a conversation and have any hope of remembering it later. He would eventually recover (but not his sense of smell) and move to holland to skate inline races at the suggestion of Desly, but be forced to quit due to foot problems which required expensive surgery. He was subsequently convinced to join our team on the ice and within two months had qualified for the world cups in the 5000m. He would go on to qualify for the Olympic games with an impressive time of 6:27, only to miss out due to a technicality in the ISU rules concerning Olympic qualification.
Desly Hill herself won seventeen medals at world championships in inline skating, four of which are gold – all of them in senior division. She has been coaching skaters very successfully ever since she quit competing and has also miraculously managed to find time to complete a masters degree in applied science majoring in elite sports coaching. She doesn’t like to lose, and she knows how to win. Even after her first olympics, and the incredible result made even moreso by the impossibly short lead-time, she’s hungry for more. Next time she wants a medal, and like any coach she is already making plans for bringing that objective to fruition.
Since starting the team, we’ve moved from Enschede to Heerenveen – the Mecca of speed skating. So much has happened in such a short time that it is easy to forget that 2 years ago there was no Australian long track team. Only in recent months has the administrative machinery of Australian sport realized that we exist and, thanks to our high media profile at the Vancouver Olympics, our prospects for future support from Australia look very good indeed. In a few days our very talented juniors, Brooke Lochland and Daniel Grieg, will be skating in the junior world championships in Moscow. Our team is here to stay, and while the cry of “the Australians are coming” may seem an amusing novelty now; I have little doubt that soon those words will strike fear into the hearts of our competitors.
But the team is much more than the sum of our parts. We’ve known each other through inline skating for years, and we feel like family. This amazing positive energy has allowed us to thrive in an environment that is a long way from, and very unlike our home (Australia is much warmer for instance). In our struggle we have helped encourage each other onto new heights never previously imaginable. Our camaraderie has been the envy of other skaters, many of whom have expressed interest in joining our ranks. Our assistant coach Rogina De Jong once accused us of “smiling too much”, which she mistook for us not taking things seriously. Like many athletes, we are obviously fiercely competitive. However, if the last 16 months have taught me anything, it is that in keeping with the Olympic spirit, it is important to not only play for keeps, but to also play for fun. The Australian team is determined to keep improving, just as we are committed to having fun. So watch out at the next big speed skating competition – the Australians are coming!