Speed skaters race to fulfill dreams Marylanders battle for Olympic spots

January 16, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Feeling pressured? Try on the razor-sharp ice skates being worn this week by John Paul Shilling -- "J.P." to his family, friends, his family's neighbors in Phoenix, and classmates in Dulaney High's Class of 1990.

This weekend could be the stuff of dreams for Shilling and two other Marylanders contending for berths on the American men's and women's teams in short-track speed skating that will compete in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, next month.

The others, who like Shilling represent the Maryland Speedskating Association, are Chris Callis, 18, of Sudlersville in Queen Anne's County, and Alice Choi, 15, of Ellicott City.

They and the rest of the contenders -- a total of 16 men and 16 women -- are in Lake Placid, N.Y., for three final qualifying events tomorrow and Sunday.

Some liken short-track speed skating to "roller derby on ice." It boils down to a sprint with four skaters at a time reaching speeds of 35 mph while leaning 65 degrees into the turns of an oval track, each trying to finish first. The clock is less important than flat-out beating the other racers, which puts premiums on experience and shifts in tactics.

No doubt about it, among the three Marylanders, anyway, Shilling is dealing with the most pressure. For at 26, he's by eight years the eldest, the most experienced, and the most widely traveled.

He understands the stakes exactly: Only six guys will make that men's team, and Shilling -- dealt what he felt was a bum whistle against him in early qualifying last weekend -- sits in a three-way tie for seventh.

But Shilling also knows, and a top U.S. coach agrees, that a ticket to Nagano is within his reach this weekend. He just has to live up to his potential with the pressure of one of sports' grandest events bearing down on him.

But he's prepared. And his credentials in the sport only add to the pressure he's feeling, too.

"I've beaten everyone here at one time or another," he said matter-of-factly this week, while expressing disappointment at his performance last weekend.

He holds an American record in the sport that has pretty much dominated his life for the past four or five years, although at 3,000 meters, it's for a distance longer than will be raced in Nagano. He was on two relay teams that set other American records at 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

He's represented the United States abroad before, too, in two World Championships. He's competed in Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Canada and China.

"I didn't like China much," he said. "I got food poisoning. But the Great Wall was pretty."

He also was on the bronze-medal winning American team in the 1995 World Championships, and he was 14th individually in the 1996 World event in Holland.

But the Olympics are, well, the Olympics -- for many athletes a once-in-a-lifetime shot at world-class glory.

"There's an amazing amount of pressure here," Shilling said. "Everybody's dangerous. People are dying to make the team, sometimes doing things in races that they wouldn't ordinarily do."

Shilling, whose father is a Baltimore television executive and whose mother once was a figure skater who took him at age 6 to the Northwest Ice Rink, said that "I plan on turning it around,

controlling the races [this] weekend.

"I want it, but so does everybody," added the skater who's been training at altitude in Colorado Springs, Colo., with other potential Olympians since last August. "Once you get a taste for winning at this level, it's addictive. That's what keeps me going."

John Monroe, eastern region coach for U.S. Speedskating, is familiar with Shilling's skills, having coached him before although not for these trials.

"He has the tools -- speed, strength. He's a big, strong skater. People can't push him around. There's no reason to say he can't do it," said Monroe. "He'll be disappointed not to make the team."

The coach said the two Maryland teen-agers still in contention, both of whom he has been coaching at Lake Placid since August, are less aware of pressure.

Callis, the state's other men's competitor, is "a total surprise" who is "a very determined kid," Monroe said.

The Eastern Shoreman -- 13th out of 16 in the Olympic trials so far -- has been racing on ice only 18 months. But the 1997 Queen Anne's High School graduate and son of a master electrician came to the sport having gained national ranking in one of the ice sport's cousins, in-line skating.

On ice, which he tried after a camp in Milwaukee, Callis surprised everyone at last year's American short-track championships, where he finished a 10th in time trials.

"Many people didn't think I could get this far this soon, and neither did I," he said enthusiastically this week. "But I'm going for it. I'm more lacking in experience than anything else. I'm on the rise, and one day, I'll be there."

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