Ice Network

Usually speedy Richardson trying to pace herself

Reigning World Sprint champion gets season underway this week in Utah
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Heather Richardson isn't much for practice, but when it comes time to compete, she's all business. -Getty Images

Olympic speedskater Heather Richardson was reminded of her growing celebrity status during a recent trip to her hometown of High Point, N.C.

She had stopped at a sub shop to grab a sandwich when a girl immediately recognized her.

"Oh," the girl said, "Can I have your autograph?"

Richardson allows herself a quick laugh on a recent day as she remembers the moment.

"That was kind of cool," she said.

Richardson's recognition is about to take another leap. The Olympic season begins for Richardson and the other long track athletes this week at the U.S. Speedskating Single Distance Championships. The competition, which will be held at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah, doubles as the World Cup qualifier. Two months after that, the U.S. Olympic Trials will be held at the same venue.

Richardson's goals for Sochi are simple, and obvious: "Bring home a gold medal, for sure," she said.

If that happens, she would become the first U.S. female long track speedskater to medal at the Olympics in 12 years.

An inline skater as a youth in High Point, Richardson turned to speed skating after her high school graduation in 2007. She hit the fast ice in a big way last season, winning the 2013 World Sprint championship and being crowned the overall World Cup champion at 1,000 meters.

Over three consecutive days in late December 2012, she broke three national records, two of which were held by Olympians Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez.

Richardson enters the 2013-14 season as a gold medal contender in the 1,000- and 500-meter races, and perhaps the 1,500 as well. And while speedskating has delivered more medals in the Winter Games for the United States than any other sport, no U.S. female long tracker has medaled since Witty won gold in the 1,000 and Rodriguez picked up two bronze medals at the Salt Lake Games in 2002. Katherine Ruetter did win a silver in short track in Vancouver.

The history is not lost on Richardson, who made her first Olympic team in 2010.

"It's definitely motivation," said Richardson, who has had the chance to meet with Witty. "I mean, they put out a great legacy for us to chase after, being able to win world sprints here in Salt Lake City, and I know [Witty] did the same thing. I'm just excited that I was able to follow those footsteps, and hopefully that will continue going into Sochi."

Richardson started out last year with a bang. She swept all races (500, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000) at the season-opening national championships in Wisconsin.

But unlike last year, when the world championships were held in January, an Olympic year calls for patience. When the World Cup season begins in Calgary, the Olympic Games will still be more than three months off.

"I told her, she might not be winning right off the bat," said Ryan Shimabukuro, Richardson's coach at U.S. Speedskating. "Timing is everything, especially in an Olympic season. That's one of the differences that we're focusing on this year."

"Just start the season strong and hold on for it," Richardson said.

"Making sure that I'm peaked for the Olympic Games. A lot of the races leading up are important, but they're not as important as the Olympics."

In a sport where speed is everything, faster often leads to faster. But at least early in the season, that may not be the goal. Richardson's blazing speed may be more evident in February in Sochi than it is in October in Utah.

"We're not trying to overdo what we did last year," Shimabukuro said. "We're just trying to tweak some of the things that needed work on to really maintain and secure the things we did really well last year.

"That's the most important thing. It's not about overdoing in an Olympic year. I think that's the No. 1 mistake that a lot of coaches make is that they feel in an Olympic year, they've got to do more.

"Really, the third year in an Olympic cycle (2012-13) is the most important."

The off-season training has been challenging and built up for an Olympic year. Bike rides have been held twice a week, including a recent three-hour, 49-mile ride into the mountains. Dry-land training has included 200-meter sprint intervals that are run 16 times with two-minute rest periods. The team took to the ice for a two-week training camp in Milwaukee in late September and early October.

The Sochi Games will be markedly different than four years ago for Richardson. She says she spent nearly every non-competitive moment in Vancouver holed up in her hotel room.

She still managed to place sixth at 500 meters and ninth at 1,000, her strongest event.

"She had a very, very impressive first games," Shimabukuro said. "No one expected her to do as well as she did."

"I know Vancouver, I went in with so many nerves," Richardson said. "I wasn't sure what to expect. Now I at least know what to expect. There's always going to be surprises, whether it's being a little more nervous than I thought I would be. Maybe more excited. I may have to play it by ear on that part."

Richardson took part in the speed skating test event in Sochi last March so that she would already be familiar with the ice surface and surroundings at the Adler Arena. She enters the season as a 15-time World Cup medalist.

"She shows no signs of dropping off, obviously," Shimabukuro said.

"She's young, she's motivated. She loves to compete. I guess in every way possible, she's almost like a coach's dream. She's very quiet, she's very shy around people she doesn't know.

"But when she's on the ice and going to the starting line, she's as tough as any of the competitors that I've seen out on the ice and one of the most competitive girls I've ever coached."

Don't let that silence fool you. Richardson, 24, is a race-day machine.

It is a competitiveness that goes back to her inline racing days at Rol-A-Rink Skate Center in High Point when she was on a racing team at age 9.

"Sometimes practice doesn't go all that awesome for me," she said, "But when you get me in a race, I'm ready to go for some reason. Practice has always been really tough for me. Sometimes I can't nail it. But then once I'm going fast and I'm not really thinking about it, that's when it seems to click."

Richardson's determination for speed was evident during last year's streak, in which she broke national records on three consecutive days and also won a World Sprints title. Both competitions were held at the Olympic Oval and both times her mother, Pat, was there.

"That was such a surprise for me," Richardson said of her record-shattering performances. "My mom was in town. I wasn't really thinking about skating. I was happy to have my mom in town for Christmas. We went shopping; we were just having fun together. And I think that just kept me relaxed for my races. I was just able to skate and have fun. That's exactly what I needed."

In Sochi, it may be a common sight to see her walking through town with her parents and speed skater Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands, winner of the men's 10,000-meter race last March at the World Single Distance Championships. The two recently became engaged after dating for a year and a half. Bergsma joined Richardson and her family for a trip to Universal Studios in Florida. His Twitter account features photographs of himself and Richardson.

No date has been set for the wedding because, Richardson said, "We're both aiming for Sochi."

First on the wedding gift list: Olympic medals.

"Wouldn't that be great?" she said.