By Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann
If you looked at your whole life up to this single present moment, and considered all you had worked for and all you stood for to be on the line over the next six minutes, you’d likely have a mental breakdown.
But maybe you’d win an Olympic gold medal.
U.S. speed skater Chad Hedrick did both.
The former pro inline skater decided in late 2002 that after winning 50 world championships and 93 national titles, he had accomplished about all he could on skates with wheels. Still dreaming of an Olympic medal, Hedrick did the only thing he could – he changed to blades.
Going from inline skating to speed skating certainly had some crossover, but going from pavement to ice was neither an easy task nor a small feat. Luckily, Hedrick’s cardio conditioning from inline skating was “through the roof” and the main challenge was just getting used to a new surface.
So when Hedrick had catapulted to the top of a second sport in just months and found himself moments away from his first Olympic race at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy – in front of a host of hometown family and friends – the weight of that single moment came crashing down.
“It was so much bigger than anything I’d ever done, and I wanted to put on a show,” said Hedrick, recalling that “overwhelming” experience.
It was Team USA’s sports psychologist who saved the 28-year-old’s Olympic dream by insisting the inexperienced speed skater not stay on the ice for the warm-up, but go see his family and friends instead.
“He just told me to give everyone a hug,” Hedrick recalled. “That allowed me to release the demons and realize it doesn’t matter what happens in the race. They would still like Chad whether he got first or 10th.”
As it turned out, the native Texan got first.
Rushing from the short family reunion to the ice for a grueling 5,000-meter race, Hedrick “skated on a cloud,” separating himself from his competitor by more than a second, a healthy distance by speed skating standards – and three-hundredths of a second shy of beating an Olympic record.
“Once you win a gold medal, you’re on Cloud Nine and you’re just ready to keep going,” said the man who earned Team USA’s first gold of the Torino Games before adding another silver and bronze in the Games. “But winning gold was probably the hardest part of my life and one of my most heart-breaking experiences.”
Not exactly what you’d expect a gold medalist to say. Not even close.
For the guy who had essentially abandoned a sport he dominated to pursue an Olympic medal, winning gold was not nearly the satisfying feeling he had anticipated.
In fact, winning had left Hedrick empty.
“I realized at that moment that my life was defined by how fast I could skate and that I had no other purpose in life than skating,” said Hedrick, admitting to a hard-core “first-place-or-nothing” mentality when it came to competition.
Success at an early age
Such dissonance was years in the making.
Having grown up in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, Hedrick learned to skate practically before learning to walk.
His parents Paul and Wanda owned a rink, and the senior Hedrick put his young son on skates while junior was learning to walk, slowly loosening the wheels and letting the toddler roll.
By age three – when most kids are just figuring out how to control their legs in a coordinated way – Hedrick was cruising around the rink.
“I was the original rink rat,” Hedrick jokes. “Instead of hiring a babysitter, my parents took me to the rink where I skated, played video games and ate nachos.”
It worked out pretty well, however, as Hedrick quickly became known as “that kid who can skate fast” and soon he was a racing phenomenon under his dad’s tutelage.
Hedrick went to his first national skating championships at age 7 and won it a year later. He had traveled to 35 countries for skating by age 10, and at 15, he signed with two corporate sponsors who paid him a total of $600/month – big bucks for a teenager.
Hedrick was a world champion at age 16; eight years later, he had accumulated another 49 world championship titles on his long inline skating resume, which also boasted world records in the 1500, 10K and 15K outdoor races as well as claim to nine national skating records. A line of sports equipment was even named after the blazing fast skater.
As if the records weren’t enough, Hedrick was also responsible for revolutionizing the skating world with his “double push” technique – a more efficient method of skating that Hedrick ultimately adapted to his speed skating debut in 2004.
“Everyone started out laughing at me, but as soon as I got hair on my legs and started beating them, they began copying the way I skated,” Hedrick said. He even got a coaching report once that read, “horrible technique, skates fast.”
But applying that “horrible technique” to the ice helped put Hedrick ahead of the competition once again in a second sport.
The double-push technique is similar to slalom skiing, where you push off both legs while shifting from skate to skate, utilizing more strength while your legs are under your hips, rather than wasting speed during a “glide” phase.
After just one year of training on the ice, Hedrick won the 2004 World Allround Speed Skating Championships, claiming a new world record in the process. He also struck gold in the 5,000 meters at the 2004 World Single Distance Championships and successfully defended his 5,000-meter world title the following year.
Pulling in a time of 12:55.11 in the 10,000-meter race in 2005, Hedrick became the first man ever to skate that distance under 13 minutes.
“It was really groundbreaking. I could accelerate faster and skate so much more efficiently,” Hedrick said of his “double push,” adding it wasn’t something he consciously created but rather a God-given talent to understand and implement naturally. “I didn’t do it on purpose; I was just given a talent to do what I needed to do to go fast.”
Ironically, Hedrick got away from his own natural technique as he prepared for the 2010 Olympics in speed skating, trying to implement the more traditional style used by his speed skating peers.
Having taken a year off following the 2006 Games, Hedrick admits he struggled over the next several years to prepare for a second Olympics. He lost his conditioning, dappled with different coaches and the traditional skating technique and had to work through hip surgery and recovery.
“I didn’t stick with what I know,” Hedrick said of that difficult time. “I forgot the things inline skating had taught me and it really hurt me. Once I threw away the technique, I lost every advantage I had.”
Acknowledging he “was not the same man” in the 2010 Games, Hedrick believes his success in Vancouver was mainly his natural will to compete – spurred by a calmer mind and more content soul.
Maintaining the confidence Hedrick had always been known for but gaining some maturity and perspective, the 32-year-old came away from Vancouver with two more Olympic medals – bronze in the 1,000m and a silver in the Team Pursuit – becoming only the second U.S. man since Eric Heiden to win five medals in five different Olympic speed skating events.
And though Hedrick wonders at times how he might have fared in the sport had he started speed skating at age 20, he was at peace with his accomplishments as he crossed the finish line in Vancouver and retired from the sport.
“I had had an opportunity to do some soul searching and understand what life’s all about,” Hedrick said of his time off before pursuing the second Olympic run.
He became a Christian through that search, and it changed his outlook and priorities. In addition to finding God, Hedrick also married Lynsey Adams, the woman of his dreams whom he had begun dating just before Torino, and the two had their first daughter, Hadley.
Though athletically he was nowhere near the top of his game in Vancouver, Hedrick was spiritually and psychologically much more ready to compete.
“I knew what I stood for,” Hedrick said of that second Olympics. “I was not trying to win for me. I was not trying fill myself up. It was a whole different experience.”
And that revelation is what fuels Hedrick’s latest skating venture – Double Push Academy and the DP52 racing team – as well as his desire to give back to the sport that put him on the path to success.
Sharing his passion
Hedrick recognizes he has an athletic gift and a good story to share, so he is combining those things in philanthropy, coaching/teaching and corporate speaking.
But the main thing he highlights is not so much his success over the years, but rather overcoming his struggles with winning, meeting expectations and competing for the right reasons.
“You can talk about success all day long, but how many people can relate to a gold medal story – ‘you made it to the top, yippy ky yay.’ But how did that change you?” Hedrick says, adding there’s not a lot to be learned by “how life was perfect and you won a gold medal.”
What people like to hear – and what Hedrick likes to talk about – is “overcoming to reach the next level.”
For that reason, the two-time Olympian loves supporting the Texas Special Olympics. As a coach and volunteer since 2006, Hedrick’s foundation helped raise nearly a half million dollars for the state chapter in 2013.
“These kids don’t have what most of us have, yet they wake up smiling and they overcome adversity every single day,” he said. “They are really people to admire. They have such a hunger for life that is unmatched and reminds us life is good.”
Life is good, and Hedrick knows it.
Now with two daughters (Hadley, 6, and Harper, 4) plus five-month old son Hogan, the Olympic gold medalist cherishes his life – past, present and future – now more than ever.
Though Paul Hedrick was at times a tough coach, his son recognizes what incredible opportunities the elder Hedrick created for him and his teammates. Looking back, Hedrick notes that all of his teammates are among the best at what they’re doing now, in part because of the mentorship his dad provided.
“He taught us sacrifice, determination, dedication, goal-setting, work ethic,” Hedrick explained, adding that his father was a second dad to most of the team members. “He transformed lives.”
And that’s what Hedrick hopes to do now through teaching opportunities to kids around the world.
With the Double Push Race Academy, Hedrick is traveling across the globe sharing his double push technique and also aiming to make inline skating a path to success for many kids.
And this December Hedrick will have the opportunity to go to Nigeria and Uganda to help raise money and bring equipment to a group of kids passionate about skating but with very few resources. With the help of his foundation, Hedrick hopes to take skates and equipment to a bunch of enthusiastic skaters who found him on the Internet.
“They’ve been watching me on YouTube for 10 years, so I said, ‘you know what, I’m coming there for free to help you,’” Hedrick said. “It’s going to be a dream come true. I can’t wait.”
If Hedrick were back on the starting line, weighing all his life’s hard work and struggle and putting it on the line over the next six minutes, there’s no doubt that almost two decades after his first Olympic race, the former Olympic gold medalist, world champion many times over and world record holder in two different sports would have a much different reaction – one filled with anticipation and hope for whatever success or failure may come rather than fear of what may not happen.
“This is my love and my passion,” Hedrick says now of skating. “I get to wake up every day and do what I love.”
If you’d like to donate to Hedrick’s cause as he takes skates and equipment to Africa, or if you’d like to book him for a motivational speech, please contact Patrick Quinn at (630) 903-0000.