Speed Skater, 50, Gears Up for Olympic Trials

Jacki Munzel’s journey involved many trials and tribulations, including Hurricane Sandy.

  Speed skater Jacki Munzel at the Ice Arena in Long Beach NY. (Photo: Joseph Kellardl.) 

Speed skater Jacki Munzel at the Ice Arena in Long Beach NY. (Photo: Joseph Kellardl.) 

By Joseph Kellard

Speed skater Jacki Munzel has been honest with herself. The reality is that, at age 50, her chances of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team to compete in Sochi, Russia, in February 2014 were slim to none. Still, the Long Beach resident was on a quest.

Munzel was determined to qualify for the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City, which begin Dec. 27. In March, after skating in a series of competitions, she qualified for all five races: 500, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000 meters. After her family arrives in Utah this week, she will compete first in the 3,000 meters Friday.

Munzel’s time in the 5,000 meters, her strongest race, is 7:43, but she would need to shave off about 10 seconds for a chance to place third and make the U.S. team that will travel to Russia. Instead, her sights are set on another milestone.

“My goal is to compete in all five races, even if I have to skate the last one with a walker,” Munzel told Patch from Salt Lake City earlier this month. “I really, truly want to compete in all five races. Because I know no one has ever competed in all five races at my age.”

Munzel, who hit her half-century mark Oct. 19, will earn the distinction of the eldest female U.S. speed skater to compete in the trials, eclipsing three-time Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., who competed at the trials in 2001 at age 45. Meanwhile, U.S. speed skater Bruce Conner, at age 57, will become the eldest person to compete at the trials, having qualified for the 500 meters.

With the nearest regulation-sized oval hundreds of miles away in Lake Placid, Munzel has trained mainly using a Plexiglas slide board that simulates ice, as well as visualization drills that she performs along Long Beach’s shore. But this was the least of her trials and tribulations. During intensive training the summer of 2012, she injured her shoulder and tore a hip flexor. On Oct. 6, 2013, the day before she was due to fly to Salt Lake City, she fell while riding her bicycling in training and suffered a concussion and fractured rib.

In between these injuries, though, the Long Beacher faced her greatest setback in October 2012: Hurricane Sandy. The storm flooded her West End home and mold infestation quickly ensued, displacing her and her husband Michael and their 15-year-old son, Thomas, for 79 days. The disruption to her life and daily routine had her consider quitting on her Olympic quest. But her coach, Stephen Gough, who trained short-track Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno, encouraged her to soldier on, despite the mental and financial strains.

Munzel, who volunteered to help her fellow Long Beach residents after Sandy, said the city’s ability to band together then helped inspire her to continue skating.

“Everyone came together and everyone rallied,” she said. “It was an amazing thing. And that’s what I’m feeling here.”

  Munzel at the ice arena in Bethpage, NY, where she trains young skaters and hockey players. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

Munzel at the ice arena in Bethpage, NY, where she trains young skaters and hockey players. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

In Salt Lake City, Munzel is inspired to share the ice in training alongside top-ranked skaters on the U.S. World Cup Team, including Heather Richardson, 24, and Brittany Bowe, 25, who will compete at the trials and, as expected, for gold at the Olympics.

Munzel knows about their youthful dreams of winning Olympic gold. She is a former figure skater who earned a trip to the Olympic trials in 1984, but was sidelined by an eating disorder. Today, she works as a power instructor, training athletes from figure skaters to hockey players. She decided four years ago to tie on speed skates to pursue her elusive dream in a new sport.

Now, with the Olympics offer her radar, she has focused instead on enjoyed the pursuit and trying to encourage the same in the young skaters with visions of gold medals.

“For them, they see it as: ‘this is it, this is all there is,’” she explained. “I want to show them that there’s more to it… These accomplishments of theirs, they can apply them to everything they do in life. It’s not just an Olympic journey.”

Among them is Shani Davis, 31, an Olympic gold medalist, who has returned her encouraging words, praising Munzel for her successful transition from figure to speed skating, she said.

“They have respect for what I’m doing,” she added. “I’m out there as a 50 year old busting my butt along with them.”
 

* This story originally appeared on Long Beach Patch in 2013.