Ocala is the unlikely hometown of three Winter Olympians vying for another chance to compete on the world’s biggest stage, this time at the 2022 Games in Beijing next month.
Each is the No. 1 ranked skater in their respective events – 1,500 meters for Joey Mantia, 35; 1,000 meters for Brittany Bowe, 33; and 500 meters for Erin Jackson, 29 – going into U.S. Long Track Olympic Trials being held this week in Milwaukee.
“Having three Florida kids on the world circuit,” Bowe said, “the top three in the entire world from the same town, is really special.”
Bowe is a seven-time world champion and two-time Olympian, at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Sochi, Russia, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, respectively. She earned a bronze medal the second time around, in the team pursuit.
Jackson became the first Black woman to make a U.S. Olympic long track team in 2018, just four months after transitioning to ice. She’s having a career year, breaking an eight-year-old U.S. record in the 500 meters en route to her fourth World Cup gold medal of the season.
That same day, Mantia, an Olympian in 2014 and 2018, last month became the oldest man to ever win the 1,500 meters race at a long track speedskating World Cup event.
The closest ice rinks to Ocala, a city known widely for its equestrian prowess, are in Daytona and Orlando. But all three Team USA speedskaters began competitive inline skating under Renee Hildebrand, who’s lived and coached in Ocala since the early ’90s.
Inline skating is a non-contact roller sport in which athletes on rollerblades race on an indoor or outdoor track to see who can finish first. Speed skating is on ice. However, while one can achieve national- or world-championship acclaim in inline, it’s not an Olympic sport.
“If an inliner wants to live out their Olympic dream, they have to cross over to the ice,” U.S. Speedskating coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. “Renee is also one of the most renowned inline coaches in the world. … We have a great relationship. My experience on ice coupled with her experience on inline has made for a great combination.”
Below: Ocala Winter Olympian Brittany Bowe describes her journey from inline speed skating to playing Division I basketball at Florida Atlantic University and the decision to forgo a professional basketball career in favor of learning to skate on ice. (Payton Titus/WUFT News)
Many successful inline skaters – even eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno – have traded in their wheels for a pair of blades for a chance to compete at the highest levels.
Hildebrand discovered Bowe and Jackson by chance at Skate Mania, a roller rink in town, where she used to coach before moving to Skate Away, another local rink where she works now.
Bowe, then 8, went to Skate Mania for a friend’s birthday party. At the time, she said, she didn’t know inline skating was even a sport. But Hildebrand saw Bowe zooming around the rink just before practice began, and the coach approached the girl and her family about joining the team.
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Bowe said. “My parents bought me a pair of inline speed skates, and before I knew it, I was racing around the world competing.”
Jackson grew up on wheels, frequenting Skate Mania for its open skate sessions. She dabbled in artistic skating for a while at her mother’s request, who appreciated the sport’s graceful dancing qualities. But when Hildebrand approached them about inline, Jackson was all in.
“I just always loved going fast,” she said. “Even in my little art skates, I always liked to race around the rink. So that was definitely the big allure to inline skating.”
Other children have joined Ocala Speed, the team Hildebrand coaches, after hearing about it through word of mouth, or seeing current skaters whiz around the rink as free skate closes and practice begins.
“There’s so many kids that have come in and out of skating that … almost everyone knows somebody who’s speed skated in Ocala, because I’ve been here so long,” Hildebrand said.
That’s what made skating for Hildebrand in Ocala special, Jackson said.
“When I was younger, and I first started inline skating in Ocala, the team was huge,” Jackson said. “We would have people coming from all over the world just to come train with our team. … I was really happy when I joined the team just to be part of that.”
Below: Winter Olympian Erin Jackson reflects on her relationship with fellow Ocala speedskaters Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, from looking up to them in her artistic skates to racing alongside them as their peer. (Payton Titus/WUFT News)
It was the skate family Bowe inherited that made inline so special for her. Three hour weekend practices ended with a trip to a local Subway for lunch, before another two hour session at the rink. Looking back, she said, it seems like a bizarre routine, but she loved every minute of it.
The three world-class skaters now live and train on ice in Salt Lake City, but they still want very much to make their hometown and home team proud. Hildebrand still gets messages from them after big races. Aside from their undeniable accomplishments, she loves their enduring bond.
“That’s heart touching, because they’re like family” she said. “They grew up together. They like each other. They trained together. … It gives them a feeling of being home.”
This year’s World Cup circuit has done a lot to nurture their friendship, Bowe said. She (gold, 1,000 meters), Jackson (gold, 500 meters) and Mantia (bronze, 1,500 meters) all medaled at the first World Cup of the season, which was held in Poland.
Chad and Kelly Ankney, both 43, were first introduced to inline about five years ago, when his mother took their two sons to a couple of skate lessons at Skate Away.
“They wanted to try the speed stuff,” Chad Ankney said. “The rest has been history.”
Their youngest son, Brady, 12, is a six-time national champion and sponsored by Fierce USA Inline Racing Frames. Two of his favorite skaters are Bowe and Jackson, he said in an interview with Inline Speed Skater on YouTube.
“This sport’s kind of small, so everybody knows everybody,” Kelly Ankney said. “But for people that have had that much success to talk to our kids and stuff like that is really inspiring to them.”
The coach said it would be “mind blowing” if all they all win medals in Beijing next month.
“Did I believe they could do it? Absolutely,” she said of their early years together. “Did I think it was all going to come down to one Olympics? Not really.”