Fairfield's Santos on U.S. World Cup speedskating team

Kristen Santos wasn’t sure if she even wanted to go.

Her first attempt at speedskating in the United States Nationals a year earlier, by her own admission, hadn’t gone very well and now, there was another U.S. National meet coming up in Madison, Wisconsin, a far cry from Fairfield, Connecticut, where Kristen was living.

Santos - just 10 years old -- hemmed and hawed and finally, decided to go give the Nationals another go. So, the family packed the car and made the 15-plus hour trip to see if this speedskating thing was something serious or just a passing fancy.

Turns out, it was serious. She won.

“That still has to be my best (speedskating) moment, that first year I won nationals,” Santos said in phone interview from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she’s training to compete in the upcoming World Cup race in Budapest, Hungary. “It was just my second nationals and I was the youngest of the age group (Midget Division) that I was in. At the last minute, we decided to go and I ended up winning it.

“That was a big boost for me and great thing to look back on because usually, before big races I would get nervous and anxious and put pressure in myself but before these races, I had no pressure in myself. In my mind, I was just there for fun. No expectations. I wasn’t going to make an ‘A’ final. But I did and that showed me that the best way to race was to relax and not overthink everything too much.”

Now, 12 years later, the 22-year old Santos is preparing for some of the biggest races of her life. A member of the 2016-17 United States Short Track Speedskating team, Santos will soon be headed to Hungary for a World Cup event before going to the Netherlands for a second World Cup race in early October. After that, there are November races in Shanghai, China and Seoul, South Korea, before heading back to Salt Lake City for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“The Olympic trials are the weekend of December 16,” Santos said. “It’s three days … the same set up and the World Cup races. It’ll be at least three rounds at every distance. I’m in a good spot heading into these Olympic trials and hopefully I can go out and do the same thing (qualify). It would be a dream come true. This is what I’ve basically been working on my entire life. Literally, it’s just been a dream.”

When Santos first put on the skates at three years old at the Wonderland of Ice, they were figure skates, not speed skating skates. And it didn’t take Santos long to figure out that her favorite thing about skating was going fast.

“I don’t think I ever really had too much of a problem with the speed part, I mean, I don’t even remember learning how to skate correctly, it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do,” she said. “It took a little bit to get used to speed skating but being able to actually skate was something that I’ve always been able to do.”

Now, there aren’t exactly a lot of rinks that cater to the speedskating crowd but Santos found time at Ingalls Rink in New Haven, the Rinks at Shelton and at Trinity College. There was also a rink in New York where she would train, usually against men in their 40’s and 50’s

“I was thinking that my mom was going to hate this and never let me go again,” Santos said. “She was shocked when I got out there and I kept shouting, ‘I want to come back next week,’ I was so excited. I got hooked on it.”

She was nine.

Santos attended Warde High School, graduating in 2012. There, she played soccer and did track and field “just for fun” she said, competing in the pole vault. But upon graduation, it was time for a decision. Do I dive head first into all-out training for speedskating or don’t I?

“Either you’re in or you’re out,” she said.

She was in.

Good decision.

“Kristen has improved with how hard she trains as well as having a better understanding of what she’s doing,” said National Team coach Anthony Barthell via email. “She’s watching videos and asking questions about technique and race tactics. She’s becoming a student of her craft as well as being a teacher. Also, her will to win and not just be a part of the race is amazing to witness.”

“When I decided to change from trying to balance everything in my life to putting speedskating ahead of everything else, I feel like I’ve made a big jump in the last three years,” added Santos. “It’s literally all about the skating. I’ve put so much more now mentally into it. It’s all worth it.”

That was five years ago. Training full-time in Salt Lake, Santos has seen her times and her finishes improve by leaps and bounds. In a 500-meter World Cup event in 2014-15, her ranking was 76th. In that same distance in a 2016-17 World Cup race, her ranking was 7th. In addition, her ranking in the 3,000-meter relay was 14th a year ago. Today, its 5th. She is a two-time junior national champion, a World University Games member, a two-time Short Track Fall World Cup Team member, a Short Track Winter World Cup Team member and a two-time member of the Short Track National Team.

“Her strengths are how much she leans around a corner and how well she can follow,” Barthell said. “If you put someone in front of her to chase, she will do everything within herself to stay on that person, no matter how fast they’re going. She isn’t afraid to take a corner at high speeds, she’ll just lean and skate the corner.”

“In short track, you basically race every distance,” Santos said. “Time doesn’t really matter, your placement does. (Each competitor races a specific distance twice and it’s all about placement and points that you accumulate). I raced in the 500, the 1,000, and 1,500 (meters) and we had to skate like, eight races a day. It was a lot of racing.”

“I’m not 100 percent sure which event is her best,” Barthell said. “I’d say the 1,000 meters … it’s set up for her to follow at higher speeds early on so she can relax in the race and save her energy for the final sprint.”

At 22, Santos knows she still has a lot of time to reach that dream of making the Olympic team, if not this year, then four years from now.

“I’m pretty sure I would go another four years if I didn’t make it,” she said. “I had a long talk with my mom about this … she knows that anything can happen at an Olympic trial, it’s such an unforgiving sport at times. Missing the Olympics doesn’t mean that I’ve failed at the sport. My mom was like, even if you don’t make it, you’ve been to World Cups, you’ve traveled the world. You’ve accomplished so much.”

But why stop there.

“She’s making all of the necessary adjustments to improve in every distance,” Barthell said. “And she will truly be good at every distance in the near future.”