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No excuses, just speed! Lamb lands in Sochi

Speedskating is “an incredibly hard, incredibly technical sport,” says Maria Lamb, who first learned to skate at Hunt Arena in River Falls and will skate in her third Winter Olympics this month. (Submitted photo)

On Feb. 19 Maria Lamb will put on her skates and once again pit herself against the clock in a sport where there are no excuses -- and she expects to love every second of her seven minutes on Olympic ice.

“I still love it. I’m out of my mind in love with it,” said the exuberant 28-year-old during a phone interview from Utah where she lives and trains. She said she knew she had found her niche before she could keep herself upright on ice, much less skate fast.

Lamb, who grew up on “a little hobby farm” 3 1/2 miles east of River Falls and whose parents now live in Hudson, is the only U.S. woman who will compete in the women’s 5,000 meter speedskating race during the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

(A photo posted on her Facebook page this afternoon shows Lamb perched atop the Olympic rings in Sochi Village.)

On Jan. 1 Lamb, with a time of 7 minutes 13.47 seconds, out-raced fellow skaters to earn a place on the 2014 U.S. Olympic women’s speedskating team.

Her qualification race made Lamb -- who also skated in the 2006 Torino Games and the 2010 Vancouver Games -- the eighth and final member of the 2014 team.

Maria, the oldest of the four Lamb children, went to kindergarten and part of first-grade at St. Bridget’s School and then was homeschooled.

“I was a little over-active kid with a ton of energy,” said Lamb. Her mother started her in figure skating classes at age six, and she took classes for two years at UW-River Falls’ Hunt Arena.

When she first tried skating she fell and fell and fell. She thinks anyone watching would have thought there was no hope for her. But Lamb was determined.

“I wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to stop,” she said. “I can still vividly remember the first time I could skate.”

She didn’t stick with figure skating for long and says she never learned the jumps and spins, preferring to strive for speed.

“I loved the feeling of going fast on figure skates,” Lamb said. When she tried on her first speed skates, she remembers thinking, “This is the real deal.”

She moved on to lessons in Rosemount, Minn. The skaters were offered a break half way through class, but Lamb skipped that.

“I never came in to warm up,” she said. “I wanted an extra 10 minutes to skate.”

Speed was her thing: “I loved the feeling, and I still do.”

But, said Lamb, “I didn’t start out very good.”

Her technique as an 8-year-old was to imitate the faster, better skaters, following them around until she could beat their speed.

By the time she joined a club program at age nine, she was out-skating the 14-year-olds.

“It’s an incredibly hard, incredibly technical sport,” said Lamb, explaining that speedskating is challenging technically, physically and mentally. She said the 5K is the most difficult women’s event.

“It’s not something you can ever perfect,” she said. “You can always do better no matter who you are…I love the challenge of it.”

Races are on 400-meter oval tracks with skaters racing two at a time, circling the track 12 1/2 times in the 5000-meter event, trading lanes once every lap. Skaters aren’t racing against one another, said Lamb, they’re challenging the clock.

“It’s very much a test of yourself against the clock. There are no excuses of anybody getting in your way,” she said.

“I think it’s the hardest race and I think that’s why I love it,” said Lamb. “To me it’s this incredible battle against yourself.”

She added, “Every part of you is in some way screaming at you to stop.” The skill, she said, is to go through the pain, reach deep and trust yourself and your training.

“I try to lose myself in the race and in what I’m doing,” said Lamb.

She said she goes into a race with one or two strategies, depending upon what she has been working on, but the strategies seem to fall aside as she skates.

“The moment you try to think too far ahead or (think) back, you take yourself out of the moment,” said Lamb. “I try to lose myself in the moment.

“I think that’s a very special place when you are no longer aware of anything but that one precious moment.”

Lamb works summers as a barista in downtown Salt Lake City at a hotel owned by the Hilton chain, an Olympic sponsor. She moved to Utah to train at the Utah Olympic Oval -- the track, she said, where most of the country’s elite-level skaters train.

She trains six days a week, taking Sundays off.

On a typical day she spends about four hours at the rink in the morning and 90 minutes to three hours in the afternoon, working on strength and skate-position skills off-ice.

When recovery activities, massage, cool-down and skate sharpening times are added in, she spends about 10 hours a day on skating, said Lamb.

“It’s pretty much a fulltime job.”

Her coach orders a 10-14 day break at the end of the competition season in late March.

Although she gets edgy after three or four days, Lamb said the break is good for her body: “I do push it to incredibly crazy places the rest of the year.”

She is no stranger to injuries.

Before the 2010 Winter Olympics she developed piriformis syndrome, pinching her sciatic nerve and causing numbness in her foot and lower leg.

“I had many doctors telling me I wouldn’t skate again,” said Lamb. But with creative training and determination, she overcame that in 2009 and 2010.

Then less than two weeks after qualifying for the 2010 Olympics, she fell and cut her leg badly. There was, again, a question of whether or not she could compete.

Walking in the opening ceremony at Vancouver in 2010 was a much different experience than her first Olympics four years earlier when she was “kind of a starry-eyed kid,” said Lamb.

In 2010 after her recoveries, she found the opening ceremony in front of an audience of 50,000 to 60,000 a very emotional event.

“These people are here cheering for me, and all these other athletes, and all we’ve been able to accomplish,” she realized. She raced and placed 15th.

The tests of her resiliency didn’t end there.

Late in 2013, before the World Cup, the cab carrying her back from the rink ran a red light and was T-boned. Lamb’s back was sprained five days before the race.

“I raced with like 13 pieces of tape holding me together,” said Lamb.

Then in Vancouver just days before the 3K trials on Dec. 27, she got very sick with a throat infection, had trouble breathing and didn’t make the team.

To top that off, three days before the 5K trials, she developed “an incredibly bad migraine” and spent five hours in an emergency room, getting intravenous fluids and pain medication. But she rebounded.

“I had a great race, and I made the team,” said Lamb. “I am totally fine now. I had to pull things together and face one day at a time.”

For updates, go to Lamb’s Facebook page:

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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