For Tucker Fredricks, the epiphany occurred on a routine fishing trip with a buddy.
Standing at the edge of a Utah lake, Fredricks was suddenly overcome by all these questions. What was he doing? Where was he going? Why did he let himself sink so low at the 2006 Winter Olympics?
From that day forward, skating took on a new purpose in his life.
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“I don’t know how to explain it,” Fredricks said, still sounding as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself. “Something just clicked.”
He’s put himself in position to make it back to the Olympics, which would give him a chance to make up for a 25th-place finish at the Turin Games, a performance that left him embarrassed and confused.
Fredricks easily won the 500 meters at the U.S. speedskating trials Wednesday night, finishing a full second ahead of runner-up Brent Aussprung over two races held a couple of hours apart.
“Right now,” Fredricks said, “it’s all about winning.”
Winning was the furthest thing from his mind after he got back from Italy. He had no intention of retiring, but was still a bit lost when he headed out to do some fishing with teammate Nick Pearson at Jordanelle Reservoir, not far from their training base in Salt Lake City.
Fredricks wasn’t catching anything, so he put down his rod and began balancing himself on a log along the shoreline.
“I just started thinking: What am I doing with my life?” he remembered.
Fredricks knew he wasn’t giving it his all, even though he had skated well enough to make the Olympic team. He knew that a skater with his natural talent and ability should do better than 25th.
A lot better.
“Leading up to the 2006 Games, I wasn’t prepared,” he conceded. “I just kind of showed up to race and did the bare minimum to get by. When I was younger, I really didn’t like training. I just liked the people, the lifestyle, the traveling, stuff like that. But I hated training.”
He vowed to change. That day. Suddenly, those workouts he used to dread became fun. He realized it wasn’t all that hard to do the little things, from getting in a few extra minutes at his workouts to not making so many trips to McDonald’s.
“Why am I wasting my time if I’m not trying?” he asked himself. “If I’m going to do this instead of going to school or working, I might as well give it 100 percent. Something in my head just clicked. Ever since then, training has been enjoyable.”
The payoff came quickly: an American record in the 500 (34.31 seconds) and a bronze medal at the 2007 World Single Distance Championships. Last year, he was the U.S. sprint champion. During this past World Cup season, he won two gold medals and a bronze and finished third at the World Cup final.
“What most people don’t understand is once you hit a certain level, an elite level, it’s the smaller things that make a big difference,” Pearson said. “You have to do a lot of training to get to that level, but once you there it’s the small little things you’ve got to concentrate on, whether it’s eating or just putting more into every single workout you do. It makes a big difference.”
Only 5-foot-6, Fredricks bursts off the starting line – his legs churning furiously – and gets up to top speed quicker than most skaters. For instance, he covered the first 100 meters of Wednesday’s second heat in a blistering 9.66 seconds, which meant he was going about 24 mph when he dove into the first turn.
At that point, there’s only one full lap to go. Fredricks is usually able to carry that early speed all the way around to the finish.
“We always knew he was going to be good,” Pearson said. “He always had the talent for the opener (the first 100). Even when he was 15 or 16 years old, you could tell this guy was going to be one of us one of these days. He’s just naturally talented. He’s one of the best in the world because of it.”
Now 25, Fredricks is one of the senior members of the national team this time around. That’s still a little hard for him to accept.
“I don’t feel old,” he said, breaking into a big smile. “I still don’t see myself like that. I realize that’s what I am, but I still feel like I’m 18.”