Blake Skjellerup: Out Athlete, Advocate and One Direction Fan

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When New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup came out after the Vancouver Games, he brought visibility to out male Olympic athletes and helped draw attention to the first Olympic Village Pride House. He’s since become an anti-bullying advocate, an outspoken One Direction fan, a role model, and a cover boy for Gay Times. With the Sochi Games just a few months away, we decided to ask him what makes him tick, and more importantly, how does a Kiwi rugby player become a top ranked Olympic speed skater?

TBL: We’re talking to Blake Skjellerup, Olympic speed skater and one of the few out Olympic athletes in the world. I guess a good place to start is, why speed skating?

BS:  I don’t really know why. It started when I was ten, and I was playing rugby and broke my arm. There weren’t really many sports you could do at the time with a broken arm. The other sports I was doing at the time were swimming and athletics. My brother said “You could try speed skating” because it apparently you don’t need two arms to do that. It clicked with me, and seventeen years later, here I am.

TBL: Our readers are probably not going to know a lot about speed skating. I know the first time I watched the sport was when you were competing in the Olympics. I know there is short track and long track, but beyond that, I’m a little lost.

BS: Yes, there is short track and long track speed skating. Short track is what I do. Long track is done on a 400m oval, which is similar to track running. Short track is done on a typical ice hockey rink. The course is a 111m lap, where in long track you skate the 400m lap.

The other major difference is in short track is that you’re racing against other skaters where the first across the line wins, where in long track it’s a timed event.

TBL: Short track is where I saw all those collisions in the Olympics. That has to be brutal. How fast are you guys going?

BS: We’re going around 55km/hour.

TBL: This isn’t a sport that gets a lot of air time in the U.S. I know it’s heavily supported in the Netherlands.

BS: In the Netherlands, definitely. Long track speed skating is one of their national sports, and short track is starting to get more attention. And short track speed skating is the national sport of Korea, and is starting to get very popular in Canada. But globally it’s a minority sport and struggles with media attention. They’re trying to rearrange that and make it more exciting for television. But it really is a spectator sport. You need to be there, you need to be amongst the crowd to get the full excitement, like many other sports.

TBL: That’s always true, but I was struck when I watched you compete by how much I wanted to jump into the television and scream for you. It’s a very involving sport because it’s so quick and it’s so tight. I makes you want to jump at the rink.

BS: It is a really involved sport because anything can happen and can change from lap to lap. For me, being in the Olympic ring, the noise was something I’d never experienced before because there are 14,000 people in that arena and it really adds to the excitement of it.

TBL: I notice the skates are very different from what we’re used to renting at the local ice rink.

BS: The skates are very different from what you’d see in a figure skating or hockey rink. The blades are 17.5″ long and 1.1mm thick. The blade is flat, where if you turn a hockey skate over you’ll see that it’s concave. It can lead to injuries, speeding around with knives on your feet. If you’re falling with someone into a wall, there is the opportunity to receive a cut or injury.

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TBL: Have you had a bad injury? You did start this because of a broken arm.

BS: My worst injury would be a broken clavicle, which I did in 2009 at the world championships. I was pushed into a wall by a competitor at great speed, which shattered my collarbone.

TBL: That was just before the Olympics.

BS: It was about twelve months before, and I had surgery to install a plate which is still in there, which was my decision. It keeps it fused together if there’s another injury.

TBL: It being a minority sport, does the New Zealand government financially support speed skating? How does that work with you? It must be incredibly expensive to train the way you do.

BS: Yes, it is incredibly expensive to train the way I do. I guess the worst is that there is no support in New Zealand to train at the level I need to be competitive. So I have to go overseas to get the coaching, the expertise and the ice time I need to train properly, so that’s obviously a huge cost just starting out. Then in terms of government support, it is a minority sport. New Zealand is a country where rugby is all, and that’s where all the money goes. There are a few other sports that get some money, but with speed skating, it doesn’t get a lot of support, which makes it really hard.

TBL: You’re training in Calgary now, which has old Olympic facilities for you to use.

BS: Calgary hosted the Olympics in ’88. They established an organization after that to support the winter sports and help them grow. The oval on which I train is the remnants of that facility, and it’s a great training space. We have bobsled, cross country skiers, many different sports.

TBL: You did go back to New Zealand last year, right? Tweeting out pictures of you with a small cat?

BS: Actually I was in Melbourne for the last two years, they built two new facilities and I really enjoyed my time there.

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