Smith takes it upon herself in readying for SochiSpeed skater operates outside national program, foots own training bills
The path is clear for American short track speed skater Jessica Smith -- for the next five months of her life, everything she does, everything she thinks and every penny she has is going toward making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team.
She nearly tasted this dream before, narrowly missing being part of the 2010 Vancouver Games.
It was a bitter failure being an alternate, meaning she was so close yet still so far away from the Olympics. This time around, Smith says she's faster, tougher and yes, even more determined not to let another Olympic opportunity be wasted.
"Anybody who knows me can tell you what I have been like the past two, three years since Vancouver," Smith said. "I thought I was ready in 2010 to be in the Olympics, and I think I was. I hate to lose, so not making it was hard.
"But not being on that team made me step back and look at everything: how I trained, how I competed, how I prepared myself. I have pushed myself in new ways, and I know I've worked really hard."
Smith, who turns 30 on Oct. 14, has emerged as one of the strongest American female skaters. She is the American record holder in the 500 meters and was part of the 3,000-meter relay team that set another U.S. record in 2012. Smith also handily won the overall title at U.S. Single Distance Short Track Championships in last month.
She hopes to take that momentum into the World Cup season starting Sept. 26 in Shanghai.
Her journey to position herself for Sochi has been challenging on many levels. She's parted from training with the U.S. Speedskating program, choosing to stay in Utah with former short track national team head coach, Jae Su Chun.
Chun was a controversial figure in international speed skating because of accusations that he authorized skate-tampering of an opponent, and physically and emotionally mistreated U.S. team members.
Chun denies all of the accusations. Nearly half of the U.S. national team demanded his replacement last fall, with Chun resigning in October 2012. He has been banned by the ISU; he is not allowed to coach at meets or the Olympics though 2015, for violations of ethics policies stemming from the 2011 Simon Cho skate-tampering controversy.
Chun now coaches individual skaters, such as Smith. Sticking with the former short track national team coach is something the speed skater whole-heartedly believes in.
"Jae's always been there for me, and I feel his coaching is helping me be my best," said Smith, who has worked with Chun since 2008. "That's all I can say. We've been working on everything to get better."
Being on her own means Smith is footing the bills for her training, and she's struggling to find $20,000 in additional sponsorship to keep going. Spare time off the ice means emailing and contacting leads for help, and maintaining her website, JessicaOnIce.com. She's also finishing up a degree in business through an online college class.
She's not in the red yet, but she does have to make every dollar count.
"It's not easy; I'm stressed out sometimes," said Smith, a native of Melvindale, Mich.. "But I grew up seeing my parents working hard for every dollar, so I know nothing but how to work hard."
Smith's parents, Rick and Reina, indeed fully understand her world right now. Her skating -- from her progression of roller skating to ice hockey to inline and, finally, to short track -- has always been part of the Smith family.
Rick and Reina were both once world-class competitive roller skaters, and Rick served as Smith's first coach. Rick is a truck driver, who managed to shuttle Smith from roller skating rinks to hockey rinks, and back, when she was small.
Reina is a barber, who found a way to see clients and still see her daughter compete. Money is usually tight, but they've always made things work for Smith and her younger brother, Travis.
Looking ahead to Sochi, where a trip for Smith's parents could run as high as $40,000 for plane, hotel and food, gives Rick a small, nervous pit in his stomach. Right now, a lot of his retirement savings could go to see Smith skate in the Olympics. But the dad part always beats out the economist, knowing it will be a trip of a lifetime to see his daughter's dream come true.
But first things first: getting through the fall and to the Olympic trials from Jan. 2-5, 2014.
"My girl knows how to make a nickel out of a penny," Rick said. "It's a lot on her, and I worry because she's still my little girl. I just think it's ironic that she was able to get a lot more sponsorship when she was inline.
"Here she is, trying to get to the Olympics, and it's such a struggle. We do what we can to help her. We all keep going."
Reina serves as an emotional lifeline for Smith, as the two talk nearly every night. Being far from home -- two time zones and nearly 1,700 miles away -- has been hard for Smith. She misses her family but knows this is just another one of the sacrifices she is making for her Olympic dream.
"We've never babied her -- she never wanted that," Reina said. "When she calls, and vents, I just tell her to keep focused. No matter what happens in the end, she will know that she gave 100 percent. No regrets. And we always love her."
Reina knows her daughter sometimes needs a mood-lightener, knowing exactly what to say.
"If she's stressing about something, I'll just say, 'You want momma bear to come down there?' " Reina said. "I always used to say that when she was small and something was wrong. It makes her laugh today. I love that."
Smith, for her part, is working on staying even-keeled. She doesn't want to peak too early during the World Cup season, but rather wants to use the next few months to get herself into prime shape for the trials.
"I know my goals: to make the Olympic team, to be on the podium in Sochi," Smith said. "And the only way I will get there, to do those things, is pushing your limits in training and showing up every day, motivated. That's my focus. "