Tacoma and Bellevue speedskaters head to Beijing Winter Olympics

The athletes discuss the challenges of short track skating, keeping up their mental health and avoiding COVID-19.

Five athletes in dark suits taking a selfie together in front of a red backdrop

From left, Maame Biney, Julie Letai, Eunice Lee, Corinne Stoddard and Kristen Santos are photographed together after making the U.S. speedskating team following the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials on Dec. 19, 2021, in Kearns, Utah. Lee and Stoddard are both from the Puget Sound region. (Courtesy of U.S. Speedskating)

From Apolo Ohno to J.R. Celski to Aaron Tran, the Puget Sound region has become known for short track speedskating athletes who take their ice rink talent all the way to the Olympics. This year, Corinne Stoddard and Eunice Lee — hailing from Tacoma and Bellevue — will continue that tradition: The local athletes, 20 and 17 years old, respectively, are heading to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

Figure skating tends to get the most buzz at the Winter Games, but short track speedskating, an Olympic sport since 1992, is prime spectacle. From the firing of the starting gun, the race is nonstop, nail-biting action, with competitors traveling at speeds of more than 30 miles an hour on slick ice.

Short track skaters lean almost parallel to the oval track as they take the turns, moving in tight packs just inches from their rivals’ skate blades. They circle a 111.12-meter course, much more compact than the 400-meter tracks used in long-track speedskating, which is practiced on a larger rink and became an Olympic sport decades before short track. The competition is so close that, until the tip of the first blade breaches the finish line, anything can happen — including careening into the safety barriers — and even a small mistake can be career-ending. 

“I’m addicted to the adrenaline,” says Stoddard, who hails from Tacoma. Like eight-time medalist Ohno, Stoddard came to short track from inline roller skating, and like many other successful speedskaters, she learned the ropes at Pattison’s West roller skating center in Federal Way. Lee, who is 17 and attends (virtual) school in Bellevue, originally started as a figure skater and gymnast in South Korea and began speedskating when she moved to the Puget Sound region at age 6. The two are the first female speedskaters from the Pacific Northwest to reach the Olympics in years. 

Stoddard is slated to compete in all the women’s races: the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters, as well as the relay, and possibly also the mixed-gender 2,000-meter relay, which is new at the Olympics this year. Lee qualified for the team as the fifth person on the four-person relay team, meaning she is there as an alternate. Whether she will take the ice will depend on whether someone else on the team gets injured or sick, or if her coaches decide to put her on for another reason. If she ends up competing, she’ll be the youngest U.S. short track skater to compete at the Olympics since 1998. 

As Lee and Stoddard braced for Beijing at the team training facility in Salt Lake City, the athletes took a breather to speak with Crosscut about mental health in top sports, this year’s Olympic boycotts and doing the utmost to avoid catching COVID-19 ahead of the games. Both joined a Zoom call in mid-January, right after their daily training session, Stoddard from a locker room at the “oval,” Lee from her apartment. As this story is published, the athletes are probably midair, on a plane to Beijing. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Corinne Stoddard (left) and Eunice Lee (right) compete in the women's 1,500-meter during the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials on Dec. 17, 2021, in Kearns, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

COVID has complicated everything and maybe especially the Olympics. How is the pandemic impacting your life right now, before you fly out? 

Corinne Stoddard: I only come to the rink and go home to my dog, so my world's pretty small right now. If I have to go get groceries or anything, I double K95 mask [and] try to stay away from people as best I can. 

Eunice Lee: We get tested three times a week, just to make sure that no one is getting sick or getting other people sick. We’re trying to be really safe about staying at home and making sure that we avoid places that might have people that have COVID or have encountered people that have COVID. I think getting on the flight is going to be a different story.

Stoddard: For the flight from Salt Lake to Los Angeles, we're going to be with the general public … so we're all going to be double masking, wearing some kind of eye protection. And, hopefully, we're all sitting next to each other, not next to others. And then putting the air filter on us. Not going to the bathroom — [it’s] only a two-hour flight. Not pulling down our masks to eat or drink. So just being really, really, really extra cautious. Our flight from L.A. to Beijing should be only Team USA athletes, so it should be a lot more safe.

When you get to Beijing, there will be daily testing for all athletes. What other health requirements will you have? Can you leave your hotel? 

Stoddard: Well, we had a World Cup there in October. We got tested every day, both nostrils and the back of your throat for 10 seconds — like, all the way up to your brain. So it's pretty uncomfortable. You weren't allowed to leave the hotel at all. You had a QR code that you scan everywhere you go. So if you were to test positive, they know who was around who and who to quarantine. They [are] sanitizing people. They sanitize everything all the time. A lot of the workers were wearing hazmat suits. We were only allowed to go to the rink or the hotel. Even eating; they had [cardboard] boards between you and [your neighbor]…I don't think anyone's going to be getting COVID because of how safe it was at World Cup, at least.

This will be your first Olympics. Aside from COVID protocols, how are you feeling?

Lee: I mean, I wasn't really expecting anything going into trials and then to have qualified, it was just a lot of emotions and [I] obviously felt really grateful and happy. But once those emotions wore off, I'm being paranoid about doing everything safely — I know that if getting COVID was the reason I couldn't go I would just be devastated.

That sounds stressful. 

Stoddard: Yeah. I think once I get there, I'll feel a lot better about everything. But right now, it's really stressful and scary. If I were to test positive, then my Olympic debut would be completely destroyed, and I wouldn't be able to go and I wouldn't be considered an Olympian anymore. And the whole past four years would basically have been for nothing just because of a stupid virus. So I think right now, everyone on our team is a little bit on edge. 

Olympic short track speedskaters Eunice Lee (left) and Corinne Stoddard both hail from the Pacific Northwest. (Courtesy of U.S. Speedskating)

Thanks to Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, mental health among pro athletes has become more widely discussed. Are you seeing the same trend and is that a good thing?

Stoddard: Yeah. I remember watching the Summer Games and seeing everything that Simone went through. I really disliked [that] a lot of people were calling her weak and saying that she's become soft and stuff — because nobody knows what she was going through…. She had a lot of pressure on her and that [added] pressure was unneeded. I think she did something stronger than just going out there and performing. She was like: ‘I don't care what other people say or do to me. I’m gonna speak my truth,’ and I really admire that.

Lee: Maame [Biney, the first Black woman to make the U.S. Olympic speedskating team four years ago] just released a video talking about how everyone's pressure on her just really got inside her head. Seeing that [from] someone who's skating with me, it really puts it into perspective. Even when the pressure isn't really negative, it can be really overwhelming to have the weight of everyone's expectations: ‘Oh, they're going to do so well, and they're going to go so far,’ and not being able to live up to that might be scary. I know, as I get better, I'm gonna have more and more expectations on me from my coaches, teammates. 

Outside of training, what are some things you do to feel good, happy and healthy? 

Stoddard: I have a dog [Mylo, a mini goldendoodle]. I really like to take my dog on hikes and to the dog park almost every night. Having a pet really helped me mentally because, other than skating, I have a responsibility and a purpose: feed him, play with him and take him places and make sure he has a good life. [That] got me to do other things than just live and breathe skating. 

Lee: My mental health is usually the worst [before competitions]. Even weeks before an important competition, I start preventing myself from doing anything that's remotely enjoyable. I'll be like: “I’ll read this book after I finish the competition,” just because I feel like I can't let myself do anything that's not skating-related. …. But [in] the Olympic trials, I tried to force myself not to think about how things could go wrong or the pressure from my parents….  And I think it really did help my performance. 

And, now, are you able to read a book and tell yourself it’s OK? 

Lee: Yeah. I am looking at new hobbies. I began crafting [crocheting]. I'm not prohibiting myself from doing things that I want to do, just because I know that those can help me calm down and refocus.

Late last year, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games because of “genocide and crimes against humanity” against China's Uyghur community, and concerns around the treatment of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. I'm curious if you have any thoughts about that.

Stoddard: I've had some comments on social media posts about how I should be boycotting and stuff. I don't think it's right, because I don't think it necessarily helps anyone when athletes boycott. It only hurts those athletes — they've been training their entire lives for this moment. It would just devastate them and it doesn't help political situations at all. Because we're not in charge of those things. 

Lee: A lot of athletes, from when they start the sport, have big dreams of going to the Olympics…. It's a little bit sad to see that political tensions have created somewhat of a negative environment. Especially since the Olympics usually bring a lot of international cooperation, like every country coming together and performing.

The U.S. speedskating team usually medals in the Olympics but hasn’t won any gold since Apolo Ohno in 2006. What do you think the chances are for the 2022 team, and for you personally? 

Stoddard: I think I have a good chance of being top 10 in every distance, which would be really good because that's top 10 in the world. At my age and experience level, I couldn't be any happier with something like that. In general, I think [short track skater] Kristen Santos has a shot to win gold at the Olympics because she won gold at the World Cup. And those are the same people that will be racing at the Olympics. I think we have a good shot to bring home medals this year with her and also our relay team. 

Lee: I personally can't have any goals considering I don't know if I'll be skating or not. But Kristen [Santos] … has a really good chance of winning a gold medal. 

Imagine yourself on the plane heading home. What result would you be happy with?

Lee: Obviously, I would love to be able to skate at the Olympics. But I know that that might not be the most realistic. So just going there and getting to watch people skate and learning from different tactics — it'll be my first time seeing all these top skaters compete in person. Just watching will give me a lot of knowledge about how I can get better. And if my other teammates do well, I'll be very happy for them.

Stoddard: For me, being top 10 in my individual distances, and then doing everything I can in the relay … to set us up to do something really great. I'll also feel accomplished if I can do well as a Team USA [member]…. Not just in skating, just being a good athlete and a good role model, trying to be the best person that I can be out there while I'm representing the U.S.

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