Kildeer speedskater talks of his 'personal Olympics,' predicts American success
The long track speedskating events are scheduled to begin today at the Sochi Olympics, and a suburban man who knows the U.S. team members well predicts at least a few medals will be coming home.
"Shani Davis has really good opportunities to be on the podium for the 1,000 (meter) and the 1,500 (meter)," said Kildeer resident Bruce Conner, a 57-year-old skating veteran who was on the U.S. national team as a teen. "And Brian Hansen (has) great chances in the 1,000 and the 1,500 and the team pursuit."
In 1976, Conner was just two spots away from making the Olympic team that competed in Innsbruck, Austria. A couple seconds made the difference.
He was 19.
Heartbroken, Conner -- brother of Olympic gymnast and commentator Bart Conner -- gave up the sport for more than two decades. He became a commercial airline pilot and rarely laced up a pair of skates.
"I amputated that part of my life," recalled Conner, who grew up in Morton Grove and attended Niles West High School. "When I didn't make the team, it was over. I was done."
But a trip to Calgary before the 1988 Winter Games there reignited Conner's interest in the sport, and he returned to competing in 2005. He qualified for and raced in the U.S. Olympic time trials that year ahead of the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.
He didn't make the team, but four years later he was fast enough to race in the 2009 time trials, and also in the 2013 trials, which were held in December in Salt Lake City.
Conner finished 25th out of 30 skaters in the most recent trials, and he's proud of the accomplishment. He said he never expected to make the Olympic team.
Qualifying for the time trials and racing against the best skaters in the nation was enough.
"That was my personal Olympics," he said. "I knew what my capabilities were. I knew what my expectations were."
Thanks to changing technology and the sport's move to indoor tracks, Conner is racing faster today than he did as a teenager. And unlike many other athletic pursuits, long track skating is a non-impact sport that doesn't wear down a body over time.
"As I get older, I just get better at it," Conner said.
He trains at Milwaukee's Pettit National Ice Center, an official Olympic training facility.
Of the 20 or so men and women on the U.S. long track teams, Conner feels Olympic viewers should especially keep their eyes on a few athletes.
Davis, a two-time Olympic champion, is an obvious choice for fans of the sport. So is Glenbrook South grad Hansen, who was born in Evanston and raised in Glenview and earned a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Games in team pursuit.
Conner also singled out Tucker Fredricks and Mitchell Whitmore as possible medalists.
Conner picked some favorites on the women's team, too.
"Heather Richardson is someone who will probably be on the podium," he said.
He also likes the chances of Team USA's Brittany Bowe and Jilleanne Rookard.
Not everyone who watches the games tunes in for long track skating, of course. Conner says you should.
"Long track skating is like a ballet," he said. "It's elegant. But the elegance comes with a price. It's a power sport. So it requires great strength plus endurance. Mind, body and sport have to be aligned to get the maximum performance."
It sounds very Zen.
"It is," Conner said. "If something's a little out of place, you're not there."