Friday, September 4, 2009

Speedskater hopes to glide through trials, compete for Olympic gold

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009 | 1:53 a.m. (This story appears in the Las Vegas Sun print edition)

Jeff Simon wasn’t like most teenagers when he was 14 years old. A serious athlete, he lived for speed. Took risks. Lived on the edge.

And on a day just two weeks shy of the start of high school, as he was waiting anxiously for his parents outside a speedskating clinic in Los Angeles, Simon prepared to broach with them a topic foreign to most teenagers: He would ask if he could leave home to train professionally.

That was six years ago. Now, five cities, four high schools, three homes, two states and one convincing car ride back to Vegas later, Simon is on the cusp of the very dream that led him to abandon the desert heat for a clean sheet of ice.

Since a young age, Simon has dreamed of an Olympic experience. Now 20 years old, his focus is the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Next week he will be one step closer to his dream when he competes in the 2010 U.S. Short Track Speedskating Olympic Trials in Marquette, Mich.

“Every day for the past 10 years, I wake up wanting to represent both my country and myself at the Olympics,” Simon said. “I feel good right now … I’m prepared and I’ve worked hard. I’m not going to let this moment pass by.”

That moment is a decade in the making, dating back to when Simon first learned about speedskating from a flier that prompted him to exchange his roller blades for ice skates. He started taking classes twice a week and the rest was history –- almost.

“I just remember him saying, ‘I want to learn to skate fast,’” said his mother, Nancy Simon.

Jeff Simon said he was told to decide between Boy Scouts and skating.

“I started to have a passion and drive to do well in skating, so I think I made the right decision,” he said.

His passion took him to Los Angeles for a weekend speedskating clinic hosted by renowned Dutch coach Wilma Boomstra.

“(Boomstra) said he had a lot of natural talent,” Nancy Simon said. “She mentioned that if they could get him there, they would be able to work with him and do some great things.”

Boomstra’s assessment piqued a heated discussion on the ride back to the valley from Los Angeles. His mother resisted at first. But his father thought otherwise.

Howard Simon said he remembered thinking at the time that, “'He’ll hate us forever if we don’t support this.'” Eventually, as a family, they decided to go for it.

So began the teen’s nomadic journey to pursue his dream. He spent almost three years in four California cities with a trio of skating families; then left to train in Marquette, in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Making the move to the colder climate wasn’t easy. “I’m a West Coast kid at heart,” he said with a laugh.

Throughout his amateur career, Jeff Simon has picked up numerous awards and trophies. He holds two U.S. records in the 100- and 500-meter relays as a junior skater and has six World Cup medals from 2008, including last year’s Eric Heiden U.S. Skater of the Year award.

And, despite the pressure, this weekend he will line up and practice the same routine he always has.

He will make eye contact with one of his coaches, prepare his mind, line up and take off around a 100-meter racetrack, reaching speeds of up to 35 mph with dreams to once again leave home -- this time, hopefully, to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“I know I’ve worked harder than my opponents,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure, but a lot of excitement.”

Just like an August day six years ago.

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