South Florida and Texas don’t seem like places that would produce world class speed skaters. Norway, Canada and even Minnesota sure, but Miami and East Texas? Really?
Really. Just look at the U.S. speed skating team’s roster for the Sochi Olympic Games and the names of two “southerners” stick out: Miami-born short track skater Eddy “The Jet” Alvarez, 24, and Texas’s Jonathan Garcia, 27, who races the more traditional long track.
Despite growing up over 1,100 miles from each other, Alvarez and Garcia have similar sporting backgrounds. Both began their sporting careers on wheels. Alvarez inline skated around Miami Beach and was drawn into competitive skating by his admiration of Jennifer Rodriguez, another American speed skater from Miami.
Alvarez, however, almost never got the chance to see his Olympic Dreams come true after an ultrasound revealed that he had 12 tears in his patella tendons and, after surgery on both knees, he was forced to lay in bed at his parent’s home in Miami, practically immobile.
I am completely prepared to let the tiger out of its cage in Sochi and see what happens. I'm ready to turn some heads and have no regrets.
- U.S. Speed Skater Eddy Alvarez
Alvarez had been plagued for years with knee pains – keeping him off the ice for periods of time and also hindering his career as a shortstop for Salt Lake Community College.
“It was getting progressively worse,” Alvarez told Salt Lake City's Deseret News. “I thought going to baseball would give my knees a break ... I would come home and take my pants off and my knees were swollen like softballs.”
The pain kept him from going to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and was threatening his future in both sports. With a stem cell injection failing to alleviate the issue, doctors recommended surgery to fix the broken athlete.
"Surgery was the most challenging scenario I ever had to face," Alvarez said from Germany last week during final preparations for Sochi. "Being bed-ridden for four weeks and not being able to walk for eight, I definitely had the lowest point in my life. I was depressed and had no motivation to continue with my life as an athlete. Thankfully I had the support of my parents that kept the dream alive, especially my father.”
Surgery and bed rest were followed by months of intensive training – both on and off the ice – to get Alvarez back in shape in time for the Olympic trials. Wilma Boomstra a former Dutch skater and long-time coach in California put Alvarez through a grueling training campaign that included refining his racing technique, miles-long cross-country runs, draining sprints on soft sandy hills and a variety of resistance training exercises.
"Sometimes it was little too radical and he would get disqualified," Boomstra told South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper. "Now he is at the point he has the confidence, he has the strength, he has the speed. Now his passes are a lot cleaner because he is not desperate."
The training paid off with Alvarez having an impressive Olympic trials last December, placing second in the 500 and 1,500 meters and finishing third in the 1,000.
Despite that success, Alvarez faces a very large hurdle to winning gold at Sochi: his good friend and teammate on Team USA, the heir apparent to the crown of skating legend Apollo Anton Ohno, J.R. Celski.
Alvarez knows that it will be tough, but he's overcome so much already and points out that anything can happen in a sport he likens to “NASCAR on ice.”
"Medal or no medal, I am just thankful to God that I had this opportunity," Alvarez said. "I am completely prepared to let the tiger out of its cage in Sochi and see what happens. I'm ready to turn some heads and have no regrets."
On the long track, Texas’ Garcia almost lost his opportunity to got to Sochi when, at the Olympic trials in December, he forgot to strap onto his ankle a timing transponder for one heat in the 500 meter race that is required of every athlete.
He proceeded to set a personal best in the heat and appeared to qualify for one of four Olympic slots, with Shani Davis being the odd man out, but because of the transponder oversight that time was thrown out. On a reskate, his time was slow enough that Davis qualified ahead of him.
“It’s really unfortunate,” U.S. speed skater Shani Davis said of Garcia's gaffe. “I’ve been to the Olympics four times. I remember the special feeling I had when I went the first time. I was really pulling for Garcia to pull through and make the spot, even if it knocked me off the team ... He’s a friend of mine, and I clearly want the best skater to go.”
Being one of the best skaters is something Garcia has been since he began inline racing at the roller rink owned by the parents of Olympic gold medalist Chad Hedrick. He won his first national inline skating title in 2004.
In 2007, Garcia moved to Salt Lake City in order to start training on ice. The switched was facilitated by Olympic skater Derek Parra's WhIP (Wheels on Ice Program), which helps promising skaters make the move from hardwood or pavement to the ice.
At first Garcia tried short track, but in 2010 he switched to the long track. He quickly made a name for himself in his newest discipline, qualifying for his first World Cup team in 2012.
After his disappointment in not making the 500-meter squad, Garcia returned to the trials the following day, determined to make the team in the 1,000 meters. Make it he did, finished less than half a second behind the top American, Davis.
"He raced in the 1000 and he made the team. That’s what he's been training for and worked so long for," Garcia's aunt Toni Black told KLTV in Texas, "That’s his life."