Olympic-level speed skaters are made, not born

· 6 min read

Olympic-level speed skaters are made, not born

Family support, location lead to success, researchers find
Speed skater

The world’s best athletes are gathering in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Feb. 9 start of the Winter Olympics. Few are as accomplished as Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Dave Cruikshank, each of whom competed in four Olympics.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln graduate student Carol Ott Schacht and educational psychology professor Ken Kiewra interviewed the three former U.S. Olympic speed skaters for a recently published article on talent development. Their article suggests that their families and their location in a skating hotbed helped pave the way for the skaters’ triumphs.

Blair, who married Cruikshank in 1996, has six Olympic medals, five of them gold. Cruikshank won five national championships, although he never medaled in the Olympics. Jansen overcame a series of crushing setbacks to win gold in his final Olympic competition, the 1,000-meter event in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 

Carol Ott Schacht

Ott Schacht is a friend of Blair’s sister and has long had a love of Olympic speed skating. When she took Kiewra’s Creativity and Talent Development course as part of her doctoral program in human sciences with a specialization in leadership studies, she realized the sport would be a terrific topic for her culminating assignment on high achievers. Although she had not been in contact with Angela Blair for 20 years, the two reconnected through a mutual friend.

“This personal reconnection allowed me to conduct an exciting and intriguing original research study with Dr. Kiewra, who had published with other students previously, and who I thought would be a great guide during my first foray into publication,” Ott Schacht said.

The Blair connection opened the door for Ott Schacht to interview the three Olympians. She called on Kiewra, a nationally recognized expert in talent development, to help her expand the project beyond a class assignment. 

Ken Kiewra

Data from the interviews, done by Skype or telephone, support the idea that talent is developed, Kiewra said. All three skaters grew up in the Upper Midwest near centers of speed skating excellence. Jansen lived in a suburb of Milwaukee, the speed skating mecca of America, which until 1980 had the country’s only 400-meter ice rink. Blair lived in Champaign, Illinois, but traveled nearly every weekend in the winter to train at the Milwaukee oval. Cruikshank is a Chicago native, where he had access to speed skating clubs and facilities. He also traveled to Milwaukee for training and access to elite coaches.

“Had they been in San Diego or Florida, there’s no way they would have become who they became,” Kiewra said. “But they were all raised in regions where speed skating was big, and even more importantly, they were all raised around Milwaukee – the king of speed skating regions.”

Kiewra’s research often explores the influence of parents in talent development. While the parents of the three Olympians provided encouragement and opportunity, it was siblings that seemed to make the real difference. Blair was the youngest of six children and Jansen the youngest of nine. All of the older siblings were speed skaters and some of them incredibly talented.

“Because I was the youngest by quite a ways, I had a lot of coaches growing up,” Blair told Ott Schacht and Kiewra. “My brothers and sisters filled that spot of being a coach and watching over me, and then later being there at the Olympic games and being very supportive in any way that they could.”

Blair’s two brothers and three sisters were talented skaters. All but her oldest brother became a national or North American champion. She credits them for modeling a drive to win.

“Our family just had a lot of competitive instincts,” Blair said. “We always used to say about my sister, Mary, if we’re going to play a card game, you might as well just let her win or you’re going to stay up all night long until she eventually wins.”

Jansen came from a family of skaters. He was on skates at age 4. Weekends were spent traveling to speed skating meets. Several of his siblings skated at a national or world level, including his brother Mike, who skated with him on two world teams.

“I trained with Mike every day, and he was a world-class skater, so it was great to have him by my side,” Jansen said. “At about age 16, I kind of passed Mike and suddenly it was me being the best and me becoming one of the best U.S. sprinters. And now it was Mike struggling to make the U.S. team, but never did he hold me back. Never was there a thought or word of resentment or jealousy. Instead, it was always encouragement. He believed in me and helped me believe in myself. He was the single biggest influence in my physical and mental growth as a skater.”

Jansen’s sister Jane was also a major factor in his development. He credits Jane for making him believe he could be a world-class skater. She died of leukemia on the day of his 500-meter race in the 1988 Olympics at Calgary. He was so mentally anguished that he fell in the first turn and did not finish a race he was favored to win. He also fell in the 1,000-meter race and did not medal at Calgary.

“I remember that when I was about 14, Jane said something that forever affected my beliefs about my own skating,” Jansen said. “She just said in conversation one day, in a matter-of-fact way, ‘When you win Worlds …’ At that time, I had no beliefs or even dreams that I could someday win Worlds, but Jane did. And that stuck with me and reminded me thereafter of what was possible.” He went on to win multiple world titles.

Cruikshank didn’t have skating siblings, but his adopted sister was a talented musician and a key part of his support system.

“She encouraged me when I had a bad day at the rink; just finding the positives and telling me that it’s OK, you’ll have another day,” Cruikshank said.

In their publication, Ott Schacht and Kiewra concluded “that environmental surroundings and siblings (for Blair and Jansen) were the most influential factors for the speed skaters, whereas parents are the most influential factor today. Modern talent-rearing parents seem more involved than those from decades past and find ways to compensate for inadequate surroundings or minimal family history in the talent domain. Validating this impression will require the telling of both modern and retrospective talent stories.”

“The message for parents interested in this type of success for their children,” Ott Schacht said, “is to consider the resources, willingness and sacrifice necessary to provide the right mix of family and environmental influences needed to generate this development.”

Ott Schacht and Kiewra’s article was first published Jan. 9 in the online edition of the journal Roeper Review.

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