By Elaine Dunn, February 2021
Whether the 2022 Winter Olympics will take place as planned in Beijing or not (China Insight, January 2021) is anyone’s guess at this point, but to the many hopeful participants, their training and laser-sharp focus are on getting to one of the three medal-winning podiums in their event in whatever city it may take place.
These athletes have spent their entire lives practicing, training and competing at local, state and national levels. Few make it to the Olympics, but most dream of that opportunity.
One promising athlete in our own backyard is speedskater Jia Griffiths.
A little background on the sport: A long track speedskating oval is 400 meters; there are only four in the country. One of the outdoor ovals is here in Roseville (Jia’s “home ice”), and the other, at Lake Placid, New York. The covered ovals are the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee and the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City. Besides the various distance races, there is also a team pursuit event, and a mass start event, which is a little like a NASCAR race. That will make its way into the next Winter Olympics.
At the Pack National Speedskating Championships held in Roseville the weekend of Feb. 22-23, 2020, Jia skated five distances: 500m, 800m, 1000m, 1500m and 3000m. The 3000m was her longest distance – approximately two miles. She broke the record (Ladies Junior B) for outdoor ice in the 800m. “I was just really excited to be on top of the podium at the end of the weekend!” she said.
Jia has been part of Midway Speedskating Club at the John Rose Oval and a member of US Speedskating since 2010. She arrived in Minnesota from Chenzhou, Hunan Province, at the age of 16 months. Her adoptive family was more than your run-of-the-mill Minnesotan winter sport enthusiasts: her maternal grandmother is none other than Janet Carpenter, the only U.S. woman to have held multiple roles in the Winter Olympics: a figure-skating competitor (1952 Oslo), team leader (Sarajevo 1984) and judge (Calgary 1988 and Salt Lake City 2002).
Both Jia and her sister started figure skating by age 4. Her sister stayed with it while Jia migrated to speedskating. Why?
“Well, as a little girl I wasn’t keen on the outfits. I insisted upon wearing my cape and mask every time I was on the ice – and I wanted to go fast!” she said.
Speed and drive, that’s huge with Jia, who generally competes in four metric distances at each competition: 500m, 1000m, 1500m and 3000m. Her training is intense.
China Insight (CI): How much do you practice?
Jia: In the summer I often train twice a day. During the season I skate after school four days a week (outdoors), and we skate metric time trials on Saturday mornings. On my off-day I used to work with my physical therapist, but now I appreciate that day of rest. When the long track ice goes out in March, we move inside for short track skating to cross-train on a 111-meter rink (hockey size sheet of ice). During the off-season we also in-line (on rollers) and attend in-line marathons. On weekends, I do long distance biking with my team.
At least, that was our general routine before COVID-19! Last April I was headed to a camp in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center when COVID-19 derailed those plans. For a few months we sheltered at home. Cautiously, we approached summer training, outdoors and online, including a training camp with champion speedskater Brittany Bowe, which I enjoyed, even though it met virtually.
CI: How else has the pandemic impacted the sport?
Jia: I was hopeful for the season ahead. Then, because of mandates due to COVID, ice was delayed in Minnesota, so our season did not start on time. Of course, safeguarding from the virus has affected our ability to train the way we are accustomed to. Like everyone, athletes have been dramatically impacted.”
National speedskating competitions were stalled, such as the Am-Cup series. And, just announced, the International Skating Union cancelled the 2021 World Junior Speed Skating Championships scheduled for mid-February in Japan.
CI: You mentioned you used to spend your “off-day” working with your physical therapist. Did you suffer a skating injury?
Jia: It is not absolutely certain the cause of my lateral meniscus tear. In January 2019 I had new equipment and the knee was bothering me for a few weeks. In Lake Placid, I won the US Jr National Championships and was elated … but after I came home, my knee hurt. I was playing basketball at school - and with one pivot, I went down.
Surgery at Mayo Clinic took place on Feb, 27, 2019. I faced a long rehab. For one year my goal was to return strong enough to do well at competitions such as Pack Nationals.
CI: How much influence does your “nai nai” (grandmother Janet Carpenter) have on you?
Jia: As far as my grandmother’s influence, it is significant. Nai nai is my biggest booster and is at the side of the rink during every local race (even in sub-zero temps!). Sometimes she travels to Milwaukee with me too (as she did the weekend of Jan. 23-24). I hope she can join me in Salt Lake City and Calgary where I compete each year as those were the cities she judged Olympic figure skating. She was inducted into U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2008. Now, at 88, she still judges local figure skating tests, and advises skaters and coaches in places like Shattuck-St. Mary’s. She’s amazing. She emphasizes balance. And she tells me to only continue as long as I’m having fun.
CI: Have you trained elsewhere?
Jia: Yes, in elementary school my mother and I spent one year in Harbin where my mom was working. I had the opportunity to train for a season both short track and long track with a Chinese coach and team. And one summer I spent a few weeks in Calgary.
CI: How do you balance skating and schoolwork?
Jia: I stay up late most nights doing homework. And Sundays are usually big homework days! DeLaSalle is pretty rigorous. But I feel they also support me and the other students who have passions in and outside of high school. New for me this year is PSEO (Post-Secondary Enrollment Options). I was accepted into the PSEO program at the University of Minnesota. It’s been really interesting taking college courses. I have been exploring the social sciences.
CI: What are your educational plans for the future and are you still studying Chinese?
Jia: Being a high school junior, I am just starting to think about college. My sister, Sky Li, is studying biology and environmental science in Colorado. It’s fun to visit her on campus and imagine what my life might be like in a few years. My plans are to keep as high grades/GPA as possible and to keep my options open.
After attending Chinese immersion school (Yinghua Academy) from K-8, last year I did AP Chinese with MN Online High School. I took up Spanish at DeLaSalle as a third language.
CI: What other interest are you passionate about?
Jia: I like music a lot. For years I played the cello. Now it’s mainly guitar and bass. Playing with the school orchestra is just an enjoyable part of my day. I also write, and am co-editor of our high school newspaper.
CI: Whom do you credit most with providing
Jia: My family motivates me and makes this all possible – the travel, the driving, financing equipment, seeking sponsors, and just making sure I sleep and eat! And I have been privileged with some truly great coaches over the years, and a supportive Midway Speedskating Club. US Speedskating deserves credit for offering training camps and providing access to some incredibly inspiring athletes. But the drive and my competitive nature are internal – I just came programmed that way.
Jia with nai nai Janet Carpenter after a race