Barb Johnson might’ve been a contender for an Olympic spot—if short track speedskating had been an Olympic sport in the early 1980s.
Short track was included as a demonstration sport for the 1988 Calgary Games, and was given full competition status for the 1992 Albertville, France, Games.
But, by then, Johnson had moved on. She had started a career and didn’t have the time or resources anymore to dedicate herself to the sport she’d grown up loving.
She could’ve hung up her skates for good and walked away. But it wasn’t the end for Johnson. Not by a long shot.
The 65-year-old Janesville woman revived her speedskating career in 2016 and is determined to make up for many lost years of skating.
She’s got her eye on some world records, too.
“I’m living out my childhood dream at an older age,” Johnson said Thursday in her office inside the Janesville MercyCare Building. “That’s my goal: to try to be the fastest 65-year-old person doing it.”
Johnson, MercyCare’s director of IT, divides her speedskating journey into two “eras.” The native of Wyandotte, Michigan, began skating at 6 years old and traveled the state as a teenager to compete in races at various clubs. Her club in Wyandotte had a small oval so, naturally, Johnson came to excel in short track.
After graduating from Grand Valley State University, she wanted to test herself on the national circuit.
“I wanted to see how good I could get, so I mainly concentrated on trying to make the World team,” Johnson said.
She did just that, securing a spot on the United States team for the 1981 World Short Track Speedskating Championships in Meudon, France. Johnson would’ve made a run at an Olympic spot ... if one had been available.
“I did get to that level,” Johnson said. “By the time it did become an Olympic sport ... well, then it’s time to get on with your life. You kind of have to make money.”
After decades of pondering what might’ve been, Johnson’s “new era” began two years ago. This time, she chose to focus on long track speedskating.
“Because I didn’t get to do it as a young person,” Johnson said. “Maybe I can try doing it as an older person?”
Long track, sometimes called metric style, is held over longer distances with competitors racing solely against the clock. Short track is very different. Races are chaotic, and crashes can easily occur with many skaters all jockeying for inside position.
Olympic athletes make speedskating look effortless, even graceful. Johnson said that’s far from the reality. Skaters need strong core and leg muscles to “push” the ice, and the physical act of skating is much more difficult than it looks on TV, Johnson said.
In that pursuit, Johnson works through a training regimen that would put some athletes a third her age to shame. She travels to Milwaukee to train at the Pettit National Ice Center three or four times a week. Otherwise, she does “dryland” training at the Janesville Athletic Club.
Getting stronger helps Johnson apply more force to the ice. More force equals more speed.
“I’m not a big person,” she said. “I don’t have these mambo legs like other people do. You don’t necessarily get bigger muscles at this age, but I’m trying to do it.
“I feel like I’m getting faster and that I could get even faster.”
Johnson is, indeed, getting faster.
She is the current world record holder at 500 meters in the women’s 65-69 age group. Johnson set the mark, 48.35 seconds, during the International Masters Sprint Classics in Inzell, Germany, on Jan. 27, according to records compiled by speedskatingresults.com. Her lifetime best in the 1,500—2 minutes, 34.94 seconds—came last November in Milwaukee.
Johnson, along with 155 other skaters from 16 countries, traveled to Baselga di Pine, Italy, for the Masters’ International Allround Games from Jan. 18-21. She swept the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500- and 3,000-meter titles in her age group.
Beyond her trips abroad for Masters races, Johnson doesn’t see many other skaters her age, especially locally. Speedskating is broadly popular in Europe, but doesn’t have the same level of recognition here in the United States. Most people only think about the sport every four years during the Olympics.
“It’s kind of lonely in terms of peers,” Johnson said. “Most of my skating has been on my own.”
She did mention one friend, 75-year-old Colleen Lynch, a Canadian who sometimes visits Johnson in Milwaukee.
“We skate a bit and talk about how old we are and how amazing we are, because we’re doing this at this age and no one else is,” Johnson said.
A 65-year-old chasing her dreams? Amazing, indeed.
Bryan Wegter is a sports copy editor for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org