In an effort to stave off the perils of jet lag, the girls and I headed to downtown Berlin on the train for a late afternoon excursion and decaf latte. When our search for the shopping district proved fruitless we landed instead at the local Starbucks (sorry) for a warm drink to heat up our damp and chilled toes. In a way that only girls seem capable of, much gossip and gab ensued and we spent a good hour discussing all people and things speed skating. And in a way that only gossip seems capable of, in some small way, we bonded.
I train in a group of five girls and four boys, and even though we are a tight group we rarely socialize together outside of speed skating, which is one thing I believe has contributed greatly to our individual successes. At the rink, our coach, Xiuli, keeps us focused on the work we are there to do and we are oft viewed by other groups as overly serious skaters that never have any fun. This is not an entirely unwarranted description as our group is comprised of serious and professional (in spirit at least, if not in salary) athletes, but we do certainly have our fair share of fun. It just seems that suffering like dogs and working harder than you thought possible doesn’t qualify as fun for most people. But no bother, we are branded the black sheep and we don’t care.
As a result of Xiuli’s high expectations, demanding training programs and our combined work ethic and commitment to success, we have found a way to train especially well together, but we all have interests and social networks outside of our sport obsession that keep us independent and mentally healthy. We generally all get along just fine, albeit with the odd bump in the road, but still, I was pleasantly surprised to find us all together that afternoon in Berlin, relaxed and fully enjoying each other’s company.
Earlier that day we hit the ice for the first post-travel session, which is always a bit of a shock to the system. Having arrived in Berlin sans coach Xiuli, who arrived two days later, we spent this first training session on our own, and with only the girls of the group qualified to race the first fall World Cups, we were really flying solo. It was a quiet ice session in the afternoon; we were nearly the only five skaters on the ice, and thankfully it was also an easy one, just easy sets of laps together in a train, taking turns leading.
There are not many ‘girl’ teams in the world today that can depend entirely on themselves to train together at an adequate intensity to achieve world-class results. Often you will see smaller groups of girls training primarily with the guys, who pull laps for them, pull accels for them and generally raise them up to higher quality training. There are even one or two teams where there is only one girl who employs male domestique skaters to train with her. We are pretty proud of the fact that we are strong enough and secure enough to pull our own laps and push each other to higher and higher levels. Not to say that we don’t still train with the boys in the group, but when we do we pull our fair share of laps at a pace fast enough to still benefit them.
After we were finished our ‘easy’ laps, which felt brutal after travel, as they always do, we were chatting with a Danish skater who has been training solo in Berlin for the entire summer and fall. Speed skating is quite on the fringe in Denmark and as such there is not much of a team or program to speak of, so it is constant struggle for this girl to find a place to train and people to train with. She was initially told that she would be allowed to train with the German B team, but in the end that fell through and she ended up entirely on her own. She commented on how nice it was to see us skating together and instantly I felt both incredibly sorry for her and incredibly grateful for what we have together. This sport is so unique in that we need each other, we need a team, to do the training, but come race day we are alone in our goals and on the ice and fight hard to beat each other and everyone else. I can’t imagine tackling this sport alone, it seems impossible to me. It is all too likely that sometimes this Danish girl feels brutal during laps too, but has no one to share the brutal-ness with, or laugh about it with afterwards. We are lucky to have what we have, although in talking to this girl I realized how very much we take it for granted.
After coffee, on the train ride back to our hotel from downtown, we realized that we hadn’t bothered to take note of the name of our stop. It was rather dark and foggy out so we had to keep a watchful eye on every stop to make sure we didn’t end up lost in some remote corner of Berlin. Thankfully we recognized our stop when we saw it and made it home safely.
Our little excursion made me think that someday I’m going to have to get off a different kind of train – this crazy skating train – and right now I have no idea what station to get off at. As far as I can tell there is no map, and I’m both the conductor and only passenger aboard! I can only hope that when the time comes I’ll just look out the window and somehow recognize it as the right one. Thankfully, when I do, it will be with the knowledge that an incredible journey has come to an end and that I was lucky enough to take this ride with a very special group of uber-fast, uber-fun, uber-awesome skater girls.