Shilling's long track ends with Olympic chance today

Baltimore skater puts his 24 years of work on line in 1,500

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 19, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - J.P. Shilling caught the eyes of skating coaches on a Christmas outing with his family 24 years ago.

"Someone from the [Maryland] speed skating association saw us at the Northwest Ice Rink," recalls his mother, Joan Clark. "They saw a nice family out together, but they also saw a little boy who could fly."

The speedy boy from Baltimore has become an Olympic skater who will test the world's best tonight in the 1,500-meter long-track event.

Shilling made the team by one-hundredth of a second during skating trials here in January, beating fellow Marylander Chris Callis.

Since then, he's only improved, shaving two-tenths of a second off his best time and winning a pre-Olympic race at Utah Olympic Oval on Feb. 6 with a time of 1 minute, 46.50 seconds, more than a second below the 1998 Olympic record.

He'll need every tick of the clock to win a medal in a field that includes two-time medalist Adne Sondral of Norway, who holds the Olympic record Shilling bettered, and Japan's Hiroyuki Noake. Teammates Derek Parra and Joey Cheek also are contenders.

However, Sondral fell in practice Wednesday and dislocated his left shoulder and needed stitches in his elbow. He'll be skating today with a bandage protecting the shoulder.

The 1,500 "definitely isn't my favorite race, but it's my best," Shilling says. "It's the most competitive race. It's a nerve-racking event that appeals to sprinters and distance guys."

His coach, Tom Cushion, says Shilling is putting speed and technique together at just the right time. He's urging Shilling to put together "fast laps that aren't out of control."

"We've trained for this track," Cushion says. "The ice is fast, but we also know the Americans are fast."

From the early days, Shilling was a fast, but not always disciplined, skater.

"It wasn't always a focused thing, but it quickly turned serious for my parents," he says.

His mother, a former figure skater, remembers he had "a fleeting interest in hockey, until he was talking to an older player who popped his front teeth out."

He began working with a coach, Lloyd Clark, who moved to Baltimore from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1987. Clark is now his stepfather.

Still, he continued to play other sports - baseball, soccer and football - at Dulaney High School, from which he graduated in 1990.

His best subject? "Well, it wasn't math," his mother jokes.

After graduation, he attended Essex Community College, waiting for an opening at the Olympic Education Training Center in Michigan.

His short legs and compact build made him a natural for short-track skating with its tight turns and even more tightly bunched racers. He also learned to deal with exercise-induced asthma that leaves him sick after competition.

Still, his mother says, there were doubts. "I don't think he came out and said it, but there comes a time in every teen-aged speed skater's life where it's either do it or quit," Clark says.

Shilling stuck it out, with an eye on the 1998 Winter Games. But he failed to make the cut in the semifinal round at the U.S. team trials in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Disappointed, he took a year off from competition, finished his degree in health education at Northern Michigan and decided to switch to long-track skating, where "it's just you against the clock."

He moved to Park City, Utah, and joined the national program under Cushion. "That made the difference," he says.

Cushion appreciates the 30-year-old Shilling's influence on his younger teammates. "He's got a great sense of humor, and he's a real mediator on this team," Cushion says.

Shilling is hoping to draw the inside lane at the start and "hammer that first turn and get a good lead. Then the guy on the outside sees how far ahead I am and he has to scramble and rush his strokes."

If he builds a lead, then Shilling has to concentrate on staying relaxed.

And after the race, Shilling says, "That's it. I've been skating almost 25 years. A lot of people don't want me to stop, but my parents know. I'm just worn out. My asthma destroys me."

Besides, he says, brightening, "Fishing season is coming. I want to catch a world-record tuna, eat steamed crabs and get warm."

Tonight, the flying boy is hoping he's hot.

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