By B. David Zarley
MILWAUKEE -- The Pettit National Ice Center is the kind of place through whose intestines run skinny kids with hockey sticks, while other kids are dragging equipment bags bigger than they are. Vending machines sell tape ("all tape $4.00"), tights are ubiquitous, and there is a distinguishing scent, like freezer burn, lacing this atmosphere -- blood, steam and sweat. It's the atmosphere that one always feels, in facilities that bear the Olympic rings -- the actual logo, not as an abstract reference to sport or excellence, but because the Olympics are the actual, finite goal for so many within its walls.
One wonders if that helps, if the accumulation of over two decades of exertion creates a spiritual resistance, working against every square inch of flesh in every moment -- if that is part of what makes elite athletes elite, like training at altitude or hyperbaric tents. Emery Lehman, Jill Rookard, Jonathan Kuck, Brian Hansen and Shani Davis trained here, and all are now competing in Putin's subtropic Sochi Olympics. Now, coming into the salt- and slush-stained lobby to avail herself of this unique pressure is Sandrine Rangeon, all fuchsia jacket and blonde pixie bob, a trance-breaking splash of color with a soupçon of Gallic chic.
She heads downstairs to the Bronze room, ironically painted in printer's cyan and yellow, and begins to warm up for practice. Stationary bikes, a squat rack, a leg press and some free weights line the walls, and various mats and rollers litter the floor, while resistance bands and belts float about. She is petite but obviously powerful; glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves roll beneath her tights, like a calm Lake Michigan at twilight. To be fair, every speed skater in the building, including the middle-aged men, has a finely sculpted musculature below the waist. As Rangeon moves from the bikes and floor work to pull-ups on the squat rack, using a bench pulled between the frame to help her reach the bar, two men walking into the Bronze room freeze in the doorway and stare. One is roughly high-school age, maybe just past graduation, the other far older. "Are you pushing off the bench?" the older one asks her. She tells him the bench is there simply to accommodate her small stature. He says her pull-ups are "still impressive."
Muscles limber, Rangeon climbs the stairs up into the heart of the Pettit, emerging into a massive arena with the cold bite of a chest freezer. She is flanked by two international-size hockey rinks -- hockey in one, figure skating the other -- which in turn are encircled by a glistening, 400-meter loop of ice, one of only two permanent, indoor long tracks available in the country. Speed skaters of varying degrees of skill and grace hiss around the track. Speed skating is a sport of quiet, smooth power, of minimalist racing forms, limbs moving in arcs, lithe longitudinal pistons. A push, a brief jolt, then a long glide, shink glide, shink glide; the skater starts by stabbing the toe of her prodigious blade into the ice before pushing off, clop-clop-clop-clop-clop, in a duck-footed, hips-akimbo acceleration. Beyond that first push, the wraithlike quiet with which skaters approach speeds of 40 mph lends the sport a hypnotic, surreal quality when seen up close, each one alighting fleetingly against the opaque ribbon, as close as mortals get to Mercurial motion.
Rangeon laces up her skates, an action she's repeated literally thousands of times -- ice hockey skates, inline hockey skates, roller derby skates -- and heads out onto the ice. She obviously is born to skate, taking to the motions as a mako does swimming. Even if her precision is far surpassed at the moment by her strength and tenacity, that may yet be enough -- must be enough -- to loft her from Milwaukee to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
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There is a real Bohemian aspect to these Olympic sports, specifically to the ones that, as Rangeon puts it, "nobody cares about." The athletes cluster in the few places scattered about the country with the facilities and expertise necessary to get them to the games, places like Fayetteville, Ark., Colorado Springs and Lake Placid, N.Y. -- or, in the case of speed skating, Salt Lake City and Milwaukee. They often share living arrangements, like flight attendants, because when one's life is dedicated to a goal as singular as making the Olympics, it helps to live amongst others who share the same dream -- who will all be in bed by nine, since they are all waking before the sun, who will not fill the house with vodka bottles and cigarette smoke, who understand the pressure and pain and anguish and sacrifice that comes with sloughing off that one, dreadful second. There is no money here, not for most of the athletes, and what little there is goes to $1,500 skates, skin suits, helmets, program fees and healthy food. Like aspiring artists or musicians or novelists, they find comfort and shelter amongst each other, create little worlds unto themselves.
These athletic outposts are formed primarily by outsiders, and Rangeon's journey is more circuitous than most, an expat amongst transplants. A native of Amiens, France, her mellifluous accent makes it seem like she is placing words upon a raft and pushing them gently across the Somme to you. She lives on a suburban stretch of 92 Street that seems more Point Place than Milwaukee, mere minutes from the glassy quarter mile of the Petitt, in a little brick-faced house with an interior color scheme of cold blues and diluted oxbloods, reminiscent of the Colorado Avalanche or a Caribou Coffee shop.
Wisconsin is merely the newest phase in a long athletic career. Rangeon's first sporting love was hockey. "I started skating really when I was nine," Rangeon say the night after practice, as she nurses a tall mug of hot tea. "I had a really good friend of mine at school who played hockey, and I was like, 'Oh, this is so cool, I want to do it.'" This was a desire easier expressed than realized. "In France, a lot of the sports are just for boys," Rangeon says. "There is no girls team … In France, if a girl wants to play hockey, she's going to have to play on the boy's team. The parents are going to be like, 'No, that's weird, I'm not going to let you do that.' And the boys, the players, are going to be offended that a girl can be on the ice with them. I got into a few fights because of it; guys wanted to get into fights against me, to show me that it's a guy's sport, and that I shouldn't be on the ice with them. Even people in the club, the coaches and managers, didn't want me to be on the ice, because it's like I'm 'stealing' ice time from the boys."
Despite the lack of institutional options for women, Rangeon's hockey career was not stillborn. Playing in one of the largest hockey clubs in France, one with a women's team, surely helped, as did a then-recent rule change instituting coed play at certain age levels. Rangeon rose through the ranks of French hockey, eventually earning a spot on the national team, where she played from 2002 to 2011. While skating for Les Bleus, Rangeon played in five World Championships -- France took bronze in the 2007 competition -- and two Olympic qualifying tournaments. (Outgunned by traditional powers like Canada, the U.S. and Finland, Les Bleus have never made the Olympics.)
Rangeon first came to the U.S. while studying abroad, spending a semester at UConn. Wanting to stay in America, Rangeon returned to Paris to finish her degree before enrolling at Fresno State for a master's degree in kinesiology and sports psychology. While in Fresno, Rangeon was introduced to roller derby, and she soon found herself jamming for the Denver Roller Dolls, helping the Mile High Club to third place at the 2012 WFTDA Championships. She was named MVP of the tournament, having played roller derby for all of two years at the time.
To understand why a woman who has played at the highest competitive level in two separate sports -- and transcendently in at least one -- would attempt to do so again in a third, one must understand the kind of athlete Sandrine Rangeon is. She is of that special kind who not only desires competition and laurels, but only those competition and laurels marked by challenge. Making the Olympics with Les Bleus is downright quixotic; skyrocketing to one of roller derby's highest individual honors in her second season seems to have been almost too easy. Starting here, in Milwaukee, on the bottom rung -- with only four years to make the ultimate climb -- should provide more than enough challenge, and if one desires laurels, why angle for anything less than Delphic?
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Speed skating comes in two main varieties, short track and long. The short track races, which U.S. Speedskating says are often referred to as "NASCAR on ice," are held within international-sized hockey rinks, where the skaters clamber out of a pack start and careen around the corners to victory. Long track competitions are held on the 400-meter oval and really are races against the clock, although two skaters take the ice at a time. With the wider curves and open spaces, long track racers achieve the fastest non-mechanical speeds in sport (sans equines). Olympic qualifications vary by discipline, as well as the idiosyncrasies of each nation.
"For short track [Olympic qualification], you'd have to make your national team," Rangeon says, "which is, for example, way, way harder in the U.S. or Canada than it would be in France." The spots in the Olympics are already there for U.S. national team members; a skater "just" has to finish in the top three to make the trip. For France, however, the story is different. "There is only one skater who is going to the Olympics, and she is the national team, pretty much. That's her … She's the only one who is good enough to skate at the World Cups. There are some other girls that are pretty good too, but not as good, so they don't get to go to the Olympics."
Though the comparative weakness of the competition in France makes for an easier path to Pyeongchang, there is still the small matter of hitting the qualifying times, which Rangeon is quite far from doing. "Before I got here, my 500 meter time was 1:02, which is about as slow as it gets," Rangeon laughs. "So that is like what a little kid would do. A few weeks ago, I did 54 seconds. So, it's still very slow, but it's a huge improvement in a small amount of time. And to make the national team, I would have to do like 44 seconds, 45."
Rangeon is in Wisconsin not only for the Pettit's facilities, but also for the Academy of Skating Excellence (ASE), a collaborative effort between Pettit and US Speedskating, partially funded by the USOC. It's an elite developmental program, and most of 27-year-old Rangeon's ASE teammates are younger than her, still in high school or just graduated, and under the aegis of two-time Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter and former U.S. and Canadian national team member Kreg Greer. All seek to qualify for South Korea in 2018.
Katherine Reutter is good at many things. Speed skating, obviously; national crush-inducing Colbert Report appearances, definitely; inspiring brief-yet-tumultuous existential crises in sportswriters with an enviable combination of youth and achievement, certainly. What is most benefitting her right now, on the claustrophobic skirt of Pettit floor surrounding the ice track and the running track, is her ability to break down an exceedingly complex motion -- that of the oh-so-seemingly simple skater's stride -- in a manner her athletes can grasp. Speed skating is a sport of finesse; technique is paramount. As such, it requires coaching with a scalpel, not a machete. It is also a sport wherein failure can be found in tenths of a second, an impossibly cruel way to lose, doubly so when that loss can be traced to a slight misalignment of the shoulders and hips, or a lack of arm extension, or any number of esoteric and potentially fatal flaws which only trained eyes will ever see.
Rangeon and her ASE teammates do some of their most important work off the ice: Double- and single-leg squats, with arms swinging full water bottles as counterweights, for 90 seconds, two minutes, two minutes 30; strapping themselves to the squat rack or each other, in suspended animation, to work on motions performed in leans so severe as to make "Smooth Criminal" seem pedestrian; dry skating, a stationary run through of the stride, which looks something like capoeira on barbiturates. Reutter vivisects each skater's stride, applying corrections where they are needed. Noticing an imperfection in Rangeon's arm motions, Reutter stands next to her, locking Rangeon's forward swinging arm at a right angle, in line with her mandible, then following it on the back swing to ensure full extension. She assumes the skating position in front of the skaters and acts first as a mirror, demonstrating to them their flaws, than as a model, demonstrating the proper form.
"There are so many elements to it," Reutter says later, "Dark Horse" on the PA in the background, sitting on one of the long benches which line the inside of the track, watching her skaters apply their newly reformed strides to the glass straightaways. "You would never be able to write it down in your little notebook, and no one would ever be able to read it and actually understand what I'm trying to say: There are so many elements. Your shoulders and hips should make a box, like a rectangle; you never want your shoulders twisting, or your hips twisting, your shoulders and hips always stay in line. You want your core to actually be drawn up, so that your back is round; you want your hips tucked underneath you. You want to sit your butt low, have your knees over you toes and your feet flexed up in dorsiflexion." That is her simple explanation, and readers are encouraged to stand in that position for half a minute or so, arm swinging optional.
There are other components to the training, of course. Taking off only two months of the year, speed skaters incorporate a long cardio-building phase, strength building in the weight room and (particularly for senior, elite-level athletes) a shocking amount of plyometrics. There is running, as in all sports, and there are also severe lactic-tolerance workouts. (Lactic acid is what causes your quads to burn when you have run your absolute hardest; as speed skaters are racing anaerobically, like sprinters, they face the same deliriously painful acid buildups which plague quarter- and half-milers, exacerbated by the difficult position their bodies must maintain throughout the race.) There is cross training, as well. One morning practice centers around a game of hockey, where Rangeon bats the puck about with manic grace, demonstrating what made her an international-caliber player.
Reutter believes Rangeon has the athletic ability to see her through these aspects of the sport; her Olympic chances hinge on the small stuff. "I think Sandrine … is one of the most talented athletes, and most fit athletes, that I've ever worked with, and it's really just about teaching her the skating," Reutter says. "I think it's pretty amazing what she's trying to do, and I think it's realistic, the goal she has set for herself."
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The sun has not yet risen over Milwaukee. The view of Point Place from Rangeon's window takes on an eerie orange glow, as the street lights reflect off a layer of fresh snow still being blown around by a cold, intermittent wind. The Pettit's expansive parking lot seems devoid of all life, a construction crew notwithstanding, when Rangeon's little hybrid comes to a stop in the wintry gloam.
In the Bronze room, Rangeon and some other ASE skaters warm up. Soon, they will be lining the east rink with black and blue pads, skating laps around the short track under Reutter's watchful eye, slicing in and out in turns, oftentimes sliding in so close, anything but the form-fitting skin suits they wear would surely brush. Right now, though, on their backs, stretching or on the bikes, pedaling, in just about the only warm place they practice, a radio ad for the Sochi games comes on.
B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, The Atlantic Cities, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News, The Chicago Reader, Paste and numerous other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @BDavidZarley.