How a competitive streak led Fairfield speed skater Kristen Santos to the Olympics

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There was a competitive flame burning inside Kristen Santos long before she turned to the sport that would make her an Olympian.

Imagine a young figure skater who cultivates the spirit of competition. It’s summer vacation for the Fairfield family, a miniature golf course with windmills and these miniature pencils and miniature scorecards. There is some confusion over Kristen’s score.

Six-year-old Kristen wouldn’t have it.

“Scream and scream and throw the club,” Rick Santos said recently. “She was angry.”

Turns out Rick’s daughter was right. Kristen was very attentive and the score was adjusted. Message received — this child loved to compete and she was serious.

A few years later, Kristen saw a Disney Channel TV ad that focused on speed skating. Kristen seemed to know that the sport — simply racing around a track against other skaters — would take away that competitive itch. This patch of ice has become his path.

And 18 years later, Kristen Santos is no less competitive. This trait carried her to the pinnacle of her sport, a spot on the US Olympic team.

Santos, who is making her Olympic debut, is considered a serious medal contender in the short track speed skating competition. The kid who grew up skating and playing football has spent the last decade immersed in the world of speed skating in Utah.

In December 2017, she had just suffered an injury when she failed to make the US Olympic team. It was then that Santos recalibrated her thinking and decided that she wouldn’t settle for just competing in the Olympics.

His goal, which informed workout after workout, would be to make an impact. That competitive streak, channeled into an Olympic medal.

“Certainly, I’ve always been a competitive person by nature,” Kristen said this week. “Growing up, even things like going mini golf with friends or family… like, it was serious business. Or play a board game or whatever – even tell my sister to give me a run in the yard. And so I think that’s something that, the competitive aspect, has always definitely motivated me.

Her mother, Donna Lula Soukup, saw this personality in figure skating, which Kristen started at age 3. And it continued in all forms of sports.

“In football, she was always the first to touch the ball when it was kicked down the field at a very young age,” Donna said.

Santos, who graduated from Fairfield Warde High in 2012, was the first to skate at Bridgeport’s Wonderland of Ice. At age 9, she begged her parents to try speed skating. They found ice cream at Yale and eventually drove to Shelton or Trinity College or Danbury or even an ice rink in New York.

They were part of the speed skating world.

“I didn’t know that at all,” Donna said. “That’s when I started googling him. I found a place in New Haven, Yale, to take him to and that’s how it all started. And I had no idea about the skates or sharpening them or whatever. I learned a lot.”

Kristen said: “I think I liked the idea of ​​beating someone to the finish line more than being judged in figure skating. I love figure skating, don’t I… but I loved this idea of ​​it being a bit more of a free kick from a winner.

At age 10, she won the US Nationals in Wisconsin as one of the youngest skaters in her age group. And off she went, competing and skating as much as she could.

Santos continued figure skating during her teenage years before giving up the sport, but she did not center her life on speed skating. While other amateurs moved to live near training facilities and were home-schooled, Santos stayed in local schools, did football and athletics in Warde, and pursued parallel speed skating.

She was faced with a decision when she graduated from high school. College or speed skating? She tried both, attending the University of Utah while training with US Speedskating in Salt Lake City.

“I knew I wanted to be a speed skater and I knew I wanted to keep skating and keep working towards it, but I also wanted to be a normal teenager, a normal student,” she said. “I also wanted to have this experience. So I think for me, I had been trying to balance the two for a while and got to a point where I’m with other people who are homeschooled at the end of high school… so I got to a point where I was like, I try both, I can’t put 100% effort into both.

“And I feel like I was like giving them both 50%. I only came to this realization as if I was giving 100% to one of them. I could excel a lot more. But I also think that although I like it a lot, I’m someone who likes sports peaks a little later than others. For me, I think that’s kind of what I had to do. Just for my condition mental and knowing that I’m here because I like it I feel like if I forced myself into this kind of commitment too young…even though I could have been better younger, I don’t think that I would never have arrived where I really am now.

Santos, who is engaged later this year, graduated from Utah last year. But over the past 10 years, Santos, 27, has gradually established herself as a rising star in her sport. She appeared to be on track for an Olympic berth in 2018, but injured her hand and wrist during a training session a month before the Olympic trials.

Wearing a cast after the surgery, Santos skated well considering the training disruption. But she was one spot away from the Olympic team.

She was crushed first. Soon she refocused with the understanding that she was in no position to compete for a medal. In fact, no American skater has ever medaled in short track.

So she decided that if she was at the Olympics, she would want to come away with a medal.

“Within two years, she started winning World Cup medals,” Donna said. “A lot of things have changed with her. She’s been a vegetarian her whole life, then about two years ago she went vegan. It’s almost like she’s trying everything she can…I think all of that has helped her.

This time, Santos won the 1,500 meters event at the trials in December. She will skate in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meter races and she enters with the American record in the 500 and 1,000, so she is considered a favorite.

The place in the Olympic team is the culmination of intense training.

“I feel like every day was in the back of my head… if there’s a set that we do, say, nine rounds and my legs drop to seven, I really force myself every time to to go an extra lap, to go a little bit more, to keep going just because I know anything more isn’t going to kill me, but it can make a big difference in the long run,” Santos said.

Says Rick Santos, “She works so hard, harder than anybody I’ve ever been / Could never do what she does. She just hates to lose.

Olympic motivation has also seen Santos through a year without competition due to the pandemic. While other skaters – like athletes at all levels – may have been discouraged by the impact of COVID, Santos has channeled her energy and competitive spirit into training.

“I’m actually someone who gets really nervous for races, and before races with practice I tend to start overthinking things,” Santos said. “I’ll be afraid to try new things because I don’t want to slow down one day and if I slow down one day it will mess my head up a bit.

“So last year almost all of our races were cancelled. I think I really enjoyed it a lot. Whereas some people might have struggled to stay motivated without races. I feel like for me , I was motivated enough knowing that the Games were coming up. And so I could stay motivated, but I also didn’t have that extra pressure like a different race day coming up. I was able to try new things. I I was not afraid to feel completely destroyed and dead for weeks.

Santos also worked with a sports psychologist. She has benefited from understanding why she follows each workout, breaking down her steps while focusing on progressive steps.

Another area of ​​interest is positive self-talk.

“Before a race, it’s literally as simple as ‘You got it’ as I step onto the ice,” Santos said. “Because I tend to talk about my competitors in my head and diminish myself at the same time. So I try to fight against that.

She deploys these tools in her training for the Beijing Games. The roster has been more isolated in Utah in an effort to stay COVID-free, and her life with fiancé Travis Griswold has been simple — limited or no outside contact.

Santos hasn’t been at home in Connecticut in the spring of 2021. But the support is strong. Rick says he continually hears from friends and family since Kristen qualified in December. Donna has a red banner with a picture of Kristen hanging from her barn in Higganum.

Both parents will be in Utah for a viewing party during the first week of the Games, as the family is not allowed in Beijing. It won’t be the same as being on site during the competition and they will miss sharing the moment if Kristen wins any medals.

But they will see her soon and maybe Kristen will be home as an Olympic medalist in the months to come.

For now, she’s focused on what’s next as her journey from Utah to China – via Los Angeles – began this week.

“I’m excited to get there,” she said. “It’s been a trip.”

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