Willowbrook speed skater competing at inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games
Sarah Warren has spent a good part of her childhood hanging around ice rinks.
The 15-year-old sophomore at Hinsdale South High School recalls tagging along with her parents to watch her brother play hockey. But sitting in the stands was no fun, so by age 9 she laced up a pair of skates and joined the boys on the ice.
She helped the Chicago Blues hockey club win state that year.
"I was absolutely enthralled with it. I saw people going fast. I like taking risks," she says.
But there was a different sport on ice that soon got her attention: speed skating.
And just five years after taking up the sport, Warren is perhaps one of the best in the country at it. She'll be representing the United States in the short-track speed skating competition at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, beginning Friday and running through Jan. 22. More than 1,000 athletes from 60 countries are expected to compete.
To qualify for the international competition, Warren outskated 25 other girls between the ages of 14 and 19 at the American Cup meet in Cleveland.
"Once I figured out I won, it probably was the best skating experience," Warren said. "It was kind of like the world stopped."
Reaching the international level doesn't come easily. Warren maintains an intense practice schedule that keeps her busy seven days a week. She skates with the Glen Ellyn Speed Skating Club in Addison on Sundays, and in Park Ridge on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, she heads to the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee to do long track practice.
On Mondays, she may do another long-track practice in Milwaukee or a short-track with another local skating club.
One of her coaches, Carl Cepuran of the Glen Ellyn Speed Skating Club, says Warren is one the fastest of her age in the country, and keeps getting better each year. Competing internationally will be an opportunity to gain more experience, he said.
When it's not winter, Warren plays soccer with a Schaumburg-based traveling team and runs track for her school, where she set two school records for placing ninth in indoor and 13th in outdoor at the state level.
That's just as she juggles the responsibilities of a high-achieving high school student -- with all honors classes and an A average.
"Sometimes I'm wiped out," she said. "But in the end when you're racing, you're happy you did it."
Cepuran says Warren is a gifted athlete, but her mental toughness -- having to deal with dozens of competitions and practices -- is what stands out.
"She has the skating background and athleticism, but she also brings drive and determination and grit to the table," Cepuran said.
And, he added, it takes family support. Warren's story isn't unlike others who grew up around ice, with parents who are willing to drive their kids hundreds of miles at all hours of the day to get ice time.
Mom Cathy says her daughter's schedule can be busy, but the long car rides allow plenty of quality one-on-one time with her daughter.
"We call each other best friends," she says.
Sarah Warren says she's "beyond excited" for the games in Austria, which will feature the same 15 sports that will be played at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"It still hasn't sunk in," she said. "For me, at least, it's very big."