Zen 15 Questions: Chris Witty

It was just another race day at the oval earlier this year, and I was scheduled to race a 1000m. I was getting lots of razzing by my friends about if there were any bets on the outcome of who would win, myself or my pair that day.

This kind of surprised me, since I was just racing my friend Chris.

Oh, yeah, wait a second, it’s THAT Chris! Chris Witty. The woman’s Gold medal winner at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, who has had the 1000m world record off and on over the years. (also she is one of a tiny number of athletes to have been to both summer & winter Olympic games)!

But to me, she is just Chris, and all that other stuff is a far distant “smoke-on-the-horizon”.

I wish I could accurately paint a picture of the thoughtful, down-to-earth, low-key person I have gotten to know around the oval.

Oh wait a second, I CAN!!!

Most interviews I do are “Zen 10 questions” Chris was so fascinating, she merited the first Zen 15!

Welcome to the blog Chris, we have had so many conversations hanging out on the spinning bikes at the Oval, I am not even sure where to start!

Why did you pull out of that race? Were you worried that you might lose to a girl?

Andrew: Hey! I raced! you just don’t remember that was me because you were chasing my anonymous blue skinsuit the whole way! I did go faster that day because I could hear your claps catching me in the last 200m!

Anyway, onward to the interview!

1. You have decided this is your last season. As I watched you race your final race, a 1000m at world single distance champs, I found myself tearing up. What did you feel on the start line, & what is in your heart right now?

I had an emotional moment at the start line and as I left the ice. It’s hard to believe that it’s all over. I will always love this sport and even if I won’t race anymore I won’t be a stranger. I’m also looking forward to new challenges in my life, whatever they may be.

2. I was glancing over your 14 years worth of results on speedskatingresults.com. What do you feel looking at that list, and do any particular memories jump into view.

The last few years were not good but I have a lot of accomplishments that I am proud of, especially the three Olympic medals I have won. I think as time goes by I appreciate these medals more and more.

3. Several of us expressed the idea that the ritual wrestlers do upon retirement, the “Rulon Gardner” leaving of the shoes in the ring, is wonderful. Should speedskating have an equivalent ritual? What would it be?

It would be pretty tough to take your skates off on the ice and leave them at the start line so I don’t think that would be good.

Maybe after their final event is over and after the awards have been given the retiring skater could casually walk over, place their skates on the podium and walk away. I don’t know if that would work either but what else you could do?

4. Your career connects the Blair/Jansen era with the current generation; do you feel a responsibility to pass on stories to other skaters, like the “sacrifice to the skating gods” bonfire done in Butte?

How did you know I was part of the great sacrifice?

It happened a few days before the National Championships (92/93 season I think) in the middle of the ice rink. We were still juniors who were being corrupted by a couple of senior skaters.

We all brought something to the fire to sacrifice to the skating gods. I think I brought an old skate rag that I held up and said “may we all have dry skates that will never rust”, threw it in fire and danced around the fire. Others brought speedskating related items like training programs, sharpening equipment, even an old skate.

The skating gods were good to me since I made my first ever World Sprint team, however, I have never seen anyone so mad when Mike Crowe found out what we had done. Some of the ashes had blown on to the ice, which upset Charlie, the zamboni driver.

Crowe scolded the entire junior team while the senior skaters sat in the other room and laughed. We had a great time until that moment. Someone saved an ember from the fire and we had another fire the following year in Milwaukee near one of the skater’s house.

We didn’t get in trouble this time but I think that was the last sacrificial fire to the skate gods.

5. You have carried the flag for the USA at the opening ceremonies, won sprint world championships & a gold medal at a hometown games. Such a huge pile of memories. But is there a particular moment that sticks out in your mental catalogue?

I’m having a hard time thinking of one moment so I will name the most memorable.

  1. Racing my first Olympic race in Hamar, Norway in 1994
  2. Racing Bonnie Blair at the 1995 World Sprint Championships in Milwaukee.
  3. Setting the 1000m track record on normal skates in Thialf to win the World Sprint Championships in 1996
  4. Winning a silver and bronze in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan
  5. Crossing the finish line with a new world record in the 1000m in the 2002 Olympics, & having to wait for the rest of the field before I knew that I had won a gold medal.
  6. Carrying the flag in the Opening ceremonies.

6. I once asked you about your gold medal and world record, and you smiled, shrugged, and said “ah, I got lucky!”. I’ve never mentioned it again, but whoa!!!!

What did you mean by that?

I meant a couple things with that. The Olympics is a special event. You can walk into the competition as a true favorite for a medal and walk out with nothing. You can also walk in with no expectations and walk out an Olympic champion.

In really high-pressure competitions anything can happen so sometimes you need a little luck. Speedskating is also a time trial sport and champions are determined by a fraction of a second.

At an Olympic level the top contenders have all trained hard, they’re talented and in the shape of their life. When you win a race by a small fraction of a second I always found it hard to think that I was better than the rest, just fortunate enough to win on that day.

I also don’t really like talking about myself so I think I just wanted to change the subject.

7. You have been on the world cup circuit for over 14 years. If there is such a thing as a road warrior, it’s you. What rock solid road trip strategies can you pass along to other traveling athletes? Things to never leave home without? Essentials to avoid losing your mind? Etc

Not losing your mind is important so try to avoid feeling like you are trapped in a hotel room.

Bring lots of DVDs, books and games. Depending on where you are traveling it might be important to bring some food or condiments from home.

I remember the 1992 Junior World Championships in Warsaw, Poland. The food was terrible so we were all starving. Kim Stryzkalski brought a huge bottle of ketchup from home and saved not only the US team but also a couple other teams from starvation.

The weekend after that we went to Kiev, Ukraine. We brought a box of food with us just in case the food situation wouldn’t improve. When we arrived the coaches gave them some pasta and sauce, which they cooked for us but only half of what we gave them and the entire box of food disappeared.

Once again we survived by smothering our food with ketchup.

8. A 2-time Olympian once said to me “Chris doesn’t try to be someone she’s not, she just puts a 25 meter rocker on her skates, and pushes hard. What did you think he meant?

I think I know who you’re talking about and I’m not really sure what he ment, but I will give it a shot.

I have always been open to trying new things. I think I have tried every type of clap skate and blade on the market, but at the end of the day I know what works for me and I stick with it.

It’s important to play with your equipment to find the best possible set up for you, but once you have found it “set it and forget it”. Some skaters will play with their equipment all season long and I often wonder if they ever get use to one thing.

9. What is the most incredible thing you have ever seen a human being do on skates?

Long track: I was on the back stretch at the 3000m start line and watched Hiroyasu Shimizu skate a world record with a killer last inner. He entered the last inner so low with a perfect line and no hesitation. Totally flawless!

Short track: I love watching Apolo Ohno go from back of the pack to the front within one lap. It seems effortless. He has a lot of body control and it almost looks like he can apply so much pressure to the ice that he can accelerate without really taking stride.

10. Do you have a core set of principles that you try and live by as an athlete? By this I mean the “little things” that help you to succeed?

Over the years I have noticed something with top athletes. The ones who make it to the top really know themselves well.

It’s important to do all the work that the coach puts in the program, but the athlete who can find their own way usually knows the best way for them.

Don’t get stuck just following, break away now and then and find yourself. Know your strengths and be truly honest to yourself about your weaknesses.

11. You are a very low-key and laid back person, yet Bart Schouten once described you as an “emotion” skater, are there ferocious currents running just beneath the surface?

Some skaters can turn it on and race near personal best times every weekend, even at summer time trials.

I’m not at all like that. I need pressure to perform and I’m usually at my best when people don’t believe in me. I like to prove them wrong.

12. You are consistently among the top sprinters in the world, and in the biggest meets, you were a frequently resident on the podium. From your perspective as one of the truly fast what are the factors that sorts out who is 1st, 3rd, 8th, 12th? Everyone is talented; everyone tries really hard, what creates those tiny differences?

I mentioned earlier that top athletes know themselves really well. At major competitions like the Olympics some athletes will tighten up, not skate their race, even choke under the pressure.

I think you have to be able to focus when it really counts. Maybe that sounds crazy because you would think everyone would be really focused when a big event like the Olympics come around, but the Olympics is the most distracting event you can ever compete in.

All of a sudden Mom, Dad, Uncle Bob and everyone you have ever known is watching, plus the amount of media is at least 10 times greater than normal.

Within 6 months of the Games US sponsors are suddenly interested in you and want you to win medals, and once you move into the Olympic village some athletes find it hard to relax.

The Olympic village can be noisy and it’s easy to spend most of your day playing video games, hanging out in the cafeteria people watching, or just sitting online all day. If you’re not careful the village, family, and media expectations can exhaust and distract you from what you came there to do.

On race day the media reminds you over and over again that this is the Olympics and you are here to win gold medals. A huge mistake athletes can make is focusing on the outcome of the race instead of the race itself.

You need to go to the start line focused on what it takes to go fast and worry about what place you will be after you’ve crossed the finish line.

13. Skating, when done correctly, looks effortless. The training and preparation for it is anything but effortless. What are the technical, physical, or lifestyle aspects to skating that you personally had to work very hard on?

The physical preparation for the sport is obviously very important, but everyone knows that and everyone works hard.

I would say continue to work hard but try to become as efficient of a skater as possible.

I believe there are some really strong and talented athletes out there that are not as efficient in their skating as they could be. Technique is so important for speedskating and something I have put a lot of time and energy into.

14. You have been to 5 Olympic games, have the games themselves changed since your first, and has speedskating changed?

I’ll start with speedskating. There are obvious things that have changed the sport like clap skates, rubberized skin suits and indoor ice rinks.

I think the generation of skaters that I come from had an opportunity to skate during one of the most exciting periods of speedskating history. We went from having a lot of our competitions outdoors on normal skates to having most of the competitions indoors and everyone on clap skates.

The largest technology advancements have been made during my generation and I have been able to witness, even take part in re-writing the history and record books. I always find it a little bit scary when I talk to skaters who have never skated outdoors or on classic skates.

Another way that speedskating has changed is an increase in prize money and sponsorship opportunities.

Before any of this existed I think the circuit was a little more relaxed. Everyone still worked very hard and they were focused but there was almost always a little party after a world cup. This was a great time to break down country/team borders and get to know everyone on the world cup circuit.

Now that skaters have a more professional opportunity they are less likely to cut loose after a competition. There is a lot more at stake today. Athletes are still social, especially if there is a Starbuck’s around, but not as much as it used to be.

My hope for the future is that the athletes will continue to be social and not get too stuck within their training groups/National teams. I also hope the sponsorship opportunities will continue to grow for everyone, not only the Dutch.

The way the Olympics are viewed in the US has changed. I remember watching the 1988 Olympics on TV and watching the entire event, or at least every US athlete plus the top 10.

The media coverage is now more focused on who is leading the overall medal count, and who the GOLD medalists are.

With some sports they have stopped showing the event and just show a recap of the medalists, which usual starts with some long, drawn out personal story of the media’s already chosen hero.

I enjoy the personal stories, but I also like watching the entire event (there maybe isn’t enough time to cover every sport in the Summer Games, but the Winter Games are still small enough). Why shouldn’t the event tell its own story?

I also think the strong focus on the overall medal count is taking away from the true meaning of the Olympics.

The principles of Olympism are being lost in the media. I bet most US athletes that have taken part in recent Olympics don’t even know Olympism is a real word.

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” (Olympic Charter, Fundamental principles, paragraph 2)

For more information on Olympism, click here.

Maybe this is all a little too much but I have always been a huge fan of the Olympics. I wanted to be an Olympian before I wanted to be a speedskater.

15. You made the very difficult personal decision to go public with some awful experiences you had as a child, you expected that to be just a media blip, and it has become something far more. Was it hard to make that choice, and what have been the unexpected results of it?

It is a huge image risk to go public with a story like this but I never really cared much about my public image. I’m also aware that if I tell my story it will be published in a newspaper which can help raise awareness about child abuse.

If the average person told the same story it probably wouldn’t be published. Abuse of any kind exists because of secrecy and as I was working out my own personal issues I realized how important it is to break the silence.

Telling my story was my last step in the healing process but I also had other goals. I wanted my story to be inspirational to those who have been affected (1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18).

I hope that victims would be to use my story to stop their abuse and start the healing process. I also hope adults will be aware of the potential for abuse and learn how to talk to kids so abuse can be prevented.

The day this article in the Deseret News was published I received a lot of emails and phone calls from people who know me and wanted to share their stories, either about themselves or people they are close to. I have been able to encourage people to find help which I’m very proud of.

There are a few misunderstandings about coming out.

  1. I’m ok, if I weren’t ok with every thing I wouldn’t be able to talk so openly about what happened.
  2. Though speedskating is mentioned in my story it is not a speedskating article.
  3. Some reporters during and after the Olympics wanted to do sympathetic articles. I never did this for sympathy, I only wanted to heal and help others.

16. No elite athlete steps to the starting line alone, so many help along the way. Here is your chance to say thanks to those who have been there for you:

Of course I have to thank my family. My parents spent many weekends at the ice rink with me and my brother Mike. I also have to thank my brothers Brian and Clint for allowing us to take their parents away every weekend in the winter.

Coaches: John Chobot, Earl Liesle, Bob Fenn, Mike Crowe, Susan Sandvig, Nick Thometz, Guy Thibault, Gerard Kemkers, Bart Schouten, Tom Cushman, and Ryan Shimabukuro.

And thank you to Jerry Search for buying me my first pair of new skates.

Zen Haiku Round

1. Best pair of skates you have ever owned?

non-clap: Marchese boot, Zandstra blades.
Clap: Marchese boot, Finn Bendy clap system, Maple aluminum tube blades.

2. What city on the world cup circuit has the worst food?

Warsaw, Poland

3. What city has the best?

Collalbo, Italy

4. When I moved to Salt Lake City, I had a bunch of speedskaters help me unload the U-haul, a world class moving crew!!! What 4 skaters would you pick, from any era, to help you load/unload a U-haul, and eat Pizza with afterwards?

Eric Heiden, Eric Heiden, Eric Heiden, and Eric Heiden. The guy is a freak of nature and could probably still out squat any male skater in the US.

5. When you picture “perfect speedskating technique” what male & female skaters pop into your mind’s eye?

Johann Olav Koss (his technique never changes, even at the end of a race), Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair, Jan Bos, and I loved watching Hiroyasu Shimizu in his prime.
Short track: Ahn, Hyun-Soo – one of the most efficient skaters I have ever seen.

6. Name 2 books that made a difference in your life.

1. Way of the Peaceful Warrior
2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance :)

7. Favorite Rink outside of the USA?

Heerenveen, the Netherlands because of the great atmosphere. I also love Hamar, Norway.

8. Favorite place to relax, & what beverage are you drinking while relaxing there?

Sitting outside of The Coffee Garden on a sunny day enjoying a double tall, non-fat vanilla latte.

9. Do you get recognized very much? You seem to look redder on TV

Immediately after an Olympics yes, but that fades pretty quickly. I remember meeting a guy once who would not believe that I am who I am. He thought I could be the sister of Chris Witty but my hair is not red enough to be her.

10. If you could travel through a time-tunnel and give your teenage self a few words of sage advice, what would it be?

I should have been a better listener. I don’t know why I felt like I had to experience something to know what it is about. If I would have listened to other people’s advice I would have saved myself a lot of time and energy.

11. If your 2 beloved dogs took over your keyboard, what would they write?

Sirius, “I’m hungry.” Glacier, “I’m happy that you won’t travel as much so you can play with us and take us on longer walks.”

12. Name a really expensive habit you wish you could afford?

My current habit of sleeping in, drinking coffee and surfing the internet before I go skiing. Eventually I will have to get a real job. Somebody has to pay the bills.

13. Do redheads have more fun? Or is it all propaganda by our powerful, super-secret lobby?

Of course they do! Red heads rule! You know that!

Thanks Chris for your thoughtful responses!

I will take a moment of liberty on behalf of speedskaters worldwide and wish you the same sentiment expressed by Garrison Keillor at the end of his “Writers Almanac” radio show:

“Be Well. Do good work. And stay in touch.”

13 Responses to “Zen 15 Questions: Chris Witty”

  1. […] student? How do you manage so many commitments? OHNO: I?ma part-time student at the …Zen 15 Questions ?Chris Witty. Short track: I love watching Apolo Ohno go from back of the pack to the front wi […]

  2. Very, very nice interview!

  3. That is a very nice, interesting interview…wide range of topics and Chris’ answers make it like sitting down to read a good book or article. Thanks to both of you :)

  4. Andrew - Thanks to you for this amazing interview and thanks to Chris Witty for her incredible achievements and contributions to speed skating. This is “must-read” material for all skaters, coaches and sport builders - definitely worthy of 15 questions!

  5. all hands and skates clapping for this exquisite interview - thanks andrew thanks chris - a majesty on skates!we’ll miss you - good luck

    jules

  6. Your best Zen 10 !! Great work Andrew!

  7. Chris,
    Congratulations on a superb skating career!!!!

    Good luck with your next chapters in life….I am sure they too will be wonderful!

    Thialf the Ice God will miss you, as many others :)

    Success!

  8. Chris and Andrew,

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourselves.

    I see now that you both have not lived until you have speedskated. It is a joy to have had a look into both of your lives.

    This is almost as good as being there myself…

  9. Chris Witty is a great athlete and a lot of fun to have as a teammate. I wish her all the best in her retirement.

    Now, on to other issues…

    It’s too bad that Thialf would have found Mike Crowe an unworthy sacrifice, isn’t it?

    Crowe’s main legacy to this sport was to introduce the term “nomination” into team selection, when he pushed through the decision to do away with skate-offs during the selection of the 1988 Olympic team. The word “nomination” has no place in a time trial sport. If speedskating in the USA is to be fair again, it must go back to the very simplest of rules, where the results of a skate-off are final, so that corrupt administrators with conflicts of interest will keep their filthy paws off them.

    In this life or the next, Crowe will get what he deserves. Yeah, my hatred is undying.

  10. The whole “leave your skates on the rink” deal when you retire idea has merit - except that then you can’t go skate with your kids later. Wrestlers can get away with it because, well, you just don’t need fancy shoes for casual wrestling.

    Or do you? I don’t even know.

    And where’s the Witty love for her first Worlds at the Sr. level in Ikaho?

  11. Thanks for the good interview Andrew, and Chris.

    Having started skating in my late 20s, I’m still amazed by the access we (regular skaters) :) have to the olympic athletes. I refrain from being the 1000th person to go up to them and ask the “how was it” or “what did it feel like” questions. I find that simply seeing them practice, at the same time that I’m on the ice, is inspiring enough.

    However, it is nice to get to read some of their thoughts, so… thanks again! :)

  12. This was a great interview, I really enjoyed reading it.

  13. […] gas-powered steel that constantly pass us. As I was climbing the canyon, I thought I saw Chris Witty whipping down the roads in the opposite direction, a big grin on her face. The effort of the climb […]

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