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Fredricks' Olympic hopes buoyed by World Cup win

Wisconsin native learns lessons from experience of mentor Jansen
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Tucker Fredricks got a thumbs-up for his gold medal-winning performance at the first World Cup of the season in Calgary. -Getty Images

Battling a bad back, discouraged by a bad season and worried that his best days as an athlete may be behind him, Tucker Fredricks made a risky decision.

The 29-year-old Wisconsin native would give long track speed skating one more year of his life in hopes of finally earning the Olympic medal that has eluded him in his two previous Games appearances.

If he was looking for a sign that he made the right decision, he got it in the first World Cup of the season.

"I was skating really well, but I had no idea I was going to go that fast," Fredricks said. "Those two races came out of nowhere. I wasn't expecting that."

Fredricks actually had two wins in the 500-meter races at the Calgary World Cup last weekend.

Because the U.S. only had one spot in the Group A race, he was placed into Group B because he finished second at the team trials two weeks ago.

Luckily, he won the Group B race.

"The winner of group B moves to Group A in the second race," he said.

And Fredricks went ahead and won that as well.

"I'm really, really happy, really excited to have won a gold medal in the first World Cup, which I've never done before," Fredricks said of winning the opening race of the World Cup season. "So, I'm pretty excited. This is uncharted territory."

Fredricks' chronic back injury (bulging discs) flared up at the end of the team selection races and again just before the Calgary World Cup.

He knows he's at the mercy of his body, so he tries to be patient and take as much preventative action as he can. In this case, he said the pain began to dissipate a couple of days before the races.

"I got real lucky," he said. "I had some issues with it leading up to the race, a couple of days before. I'm doing alright now."

Fredricks returned to his adopted home of Utah this week to compete in the season's second World Cup, at the Utah Olympic Oval, where he and his teammates train. The A Division races start at 4 p.m. ET on Friday.

Fredricks said competing in Kearns is no different for him than competing at any other venue in the world.

"For me, it's not really an advantage to be here," he said. "I am used to being on the road, and I'm pretty comfortable on the road. Having it here is nice, but I wouldn't consider it an advantage for myself."

He does get to enjoy a bit more family support than usual, as his father will make the trip to cheer him on.

Fredricks admits he's usually faster later in the season. He's hoping his experience is finally paying rewards, both mental and physical.

"It doesn't matter what time of the season it is; hopefully, I can perform well," he said. "I just go into each race with the same mentality: to technically skate well, maintain my focus. If I execute the races well, I don't have to worry about my place or the time."

He said just wanting to go fast isn't enough -- even for the world's best athletes.

"You can't just say, 'I'm going to go fast, and then go out and go fast,' " he said laughing. "If your technique is right, the speed will come."

That is not a philosophy that Fredricks has always followed.

"I've been working with Dan Jansen," Fredricks said. "Truthfully, as long as I'm skating well, that'll be enough."

Jansen knows something about pursuing a dream through the disappointments and setbacks of life. Jansen lost his sister days before he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics and failed to medal after falling in both of his races. He finished fourth in the 500 at the 1992 Games and was a favorite in 1994. He finished eighth in the 500, but then won his only Olympic Gold in the final race of Games, the 1,000 meters.

Unlike Jansen, with whom he's worked for a couple of years, Fredricks only competes in the 500.

"I tried the 1,000," he said. "I'm just not good at it."

Fredricks finished 24th in his first Olympic experience in 2006 and then 12th in 2010.

This year feels different, and it's not just because he nearly decided to retire after an abysmal performance last season and nagging, painful battles with his back.

"I've had some let downs in previous Olympic years," Fredricks said. "I really came into this year not thinking about winning or getting a medal or anything. It's more about the process. I wanted to be in really good shape and just have another chance to race at the Olympics. It truly doesn't seem like an Olympic year."

Fredricks said last weekend's gold medal encourages him and builds his confidence. It also adds a bit more pressure to the season that almost wasn't.

"It was really exciting and a big relief," he said. "It's early in the season, so it's kind of scary at the same time. It's a long time until February, and you don't know what will happen down the road. At least I know that I still have something in me."

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