US Olympic Speed Skater Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr
US Olympic Speed Skater Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr Has Faced Some Very Unique Competition On Ice
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Her mother was the first U.S. Olympian to compete in four different Winter Olympics, and at just a year old she was already posing for pictures with President Ronald Reagan. You could say this child had a unique calling on her life. But it wasn’t until her teens that Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr., stepped into her destiny – a decision that would require intense training, unwavering commitment and an excitement only known to a select few. This Olympic speed skater shares with Risen her trials from overcoming injuries, her triumphs of competing in the Olympic Games, the lessons learned, and how her faith is the catalyst behind her career. And at 27 years of age she is far from finished. With sights set on the Olympics in South Korea in 2018, and even bigger goals to touch lives through her testimony, this is one American athlete making the U.S. proud.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Solana Beach, California
Risen Magazine: Your mother, Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., was an Olympic speed skater competing in four Winter Games, so it is no surprise that you have followed in her footsteps. Take us back to when you knew speed skating was your dream and not just hers.
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: My mom’s last Olympic Games were when I was one year old. I was born in January and she competed [that following] December, so I was just a baby. Actually, a fun fact is that she brought me with her to the White House, because the Olympic team had been invited, and I was held by President Ronald Reagan! After that Olympics, she kept coaching people. All throughout the ‘90s she coached Bonnie Blair’s husband, Dave Cruikshank, through four Olympics, and numerous other people. But one thing I love about my mom is that she didn’t force me into the sport that she was involved in just because that was the family thing to do. She didn’t want to be seen that way.
As a way of babysitting, she would bring me to the rink and I would put on skates that always hurt because they were hand-me-downs; she wasn’t going to invest in equipment unless I showed a genuine interest. I was actually a swimmer for most of my childhood, up until about eighth grade. She also got me involved in things like ballet, tap dance, and baseball with the boys, golf, taekwondo, and a ton of other activities. She wanted to make sure that I had a taste of a lot of different sports, with and without teams.
But I focused on swimming with the goal of going to the Olympics. Because of my mom, that Olympic goal was planted. But it wasn’t until 2000, when I was in the transition from eighth grade to high school, and a part of the high school swim team, that I started getting burned out. That spring my mom was coaching a girl who was a year older than I was, and she had given my mom hand-me-down skates, and my mom wanted me to just try them out for one practice. [The student] just wanted to get rid of the skates. So I tried the skates on for that one practice, and it was fun! I was thinking, “Huh, I actually like this!” There were girls who were my age, the skates fit nicely, and I was having a good time. A few practices later the girls were talking about a camp that summer, which was for short-track skating – I am now a long-track skater – and I decided I wanted to try it out.
Now, just for a little background on my parents, their philosophy is, you give freedom, you gain commitment. They were not very interested in giving us curfews; they never grounded us, they just let us make our mistakes and gave us the freedom to make our own decisions. If there were mistakes we would talk about it and learn from it. However, I was never allowed to have sleepovers. That was the one main rule that we had to abide by.
So, at fourteen when I asked my mom about going to this speed skating overnight camp, she said, “No.” But a few weeks later, she was thinking, “Wait, my daughter just showed serious interest in speed skating, why would I say no?” The camp was two weeks long and I really loved it. I continued to train and my mom and I decided to work towards the Olympic trials in December of 2001, and the Olympics in 2002, with no expectation of making the team because I was too young and my mom was older. So about a year after I started skating competitively I was trying to make the time cut-off for the Olympic trials. All the while, my mom is training with us. By that fall I raced a time trial, qualified for the Olympic trials, and watched my mom qualify too!
Risen Magazine: Wow! So you were the youngest competitor at fourteen, and you got to compete against your mom who was forty-five years old at the time! What was that like?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: Well, the night before the trials there was a drawing to pair people up for the long-track skating and my mom and I were drawn together as the first pair for skating the Olympic trials – which was hilarious. Everyone was dying laughing because we also have the same name – distinguishable by Jr. and Sr. What are the odds? We were walking around Park City, Utah the next day, and our faces were all over the newspapers with headlines about a mom and daughter racing against each other. I was actually pretty nervous – not that I wouldn’t make the team, because I had no expectation of that – but because that was my first major race. It was only a-year-and-a-half after I first started skating! Plus the 2002 Olympics were in Salt Lake City, so more people were interested in the trials than usual. It was a big deal.
Risen Magazine: When your mom was training you, did she ever race against you? Was it harder, or easier for you to know what you were up against?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: My mom definitely had fun with it. The night before the race I was freaking out and she just went to bed because this is her eighth Olympic trials! She did four Olympics and eight Olympic trials total. She’s nuts. [Laughs] Before the race she came over and kissed me on the cheek and I was like, “Mom! No! This is the Olympic trials!” [Laughs] But I look back and I think, “How cool was that experience?” I almost wish I had appreciated it more, but of course I was nervous; I was fourteen and she was so experienced. She beat me that race, but by March of the next year I started beating her, and I was doing really well within my age group internationally. So only two years after I started skating, I was having great success and that is when my mom started weaning out of skating and becoming more of a coach.
Training throughout high school was brutal. I trained four days a week in Milwaukee, which was two hours away, but I was still enrolled in public high school. It was definitely a commitment. So that was when I really started to realize that the present might not be too fun, but I desired that end goal. At that point, I was working towards the 2006 Olympics. I graduated high school in 2005 and took off the next year from school. I didn’t go to Wheaton College – where the majority of my friends went – I just trained. But I missed making the 2006 Olympic team. That began some of the sports-related lessons. I had had such success up to that point.
I finished ahead of her by less than a second in a 3,000-meter race. After I finished I just collapsed from the weight of nervousness, the intensity of the race, the meaning of this win… it was so overwhelming.
Risen Magazine: I read something about you having health issues at the time of the trials. Was that part of the issue as to why you didn’t make the 2006 Olympic team?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: That fall I had discovered I was anemic, very low on iron, so that was definitely an issue. I had been struggling a bit, and I was very tired, so we had my blood tested and figured out that iron was the problem. Turns out, I was only slightly below normal levels when I was at sea level, but at altitude, the deficiency was enhanced. I had to eat liver and take iron supplements to try to regulate it as fast as possible.
Risen Magazine: So after not qualifying for the Olympics you then head off to Wheaton for college. What went into this decision and were you still planning on trying again in 2010, or were the Olympic dreams done?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: I definitely wanted to try for another Olympics. I was frustrated with not having made the 2006 Olympic team and also skating is a sport where you can still succeed even if you’re older. But I lived in the dorms at Wheaton, and I was living a normal college life. I went to school that year, and that summer I also took some classes, but after that, I went back to skating pretty heavily. And skating was my focus for the next two-and-a-half years leading up to 2010.
Risen Magazine: So you didn’t train while also living a traditional college life; you separated the two.
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: I kind of had to choose. In high school, we attempted to balance training and school, but it was just too much with the drive to Milwaukee and everything else. I was committed to not going back to school for those two-and-a-half years and training for 2010. Although in the fall of 2009, I had the issue of over-training. In 2006 it was anemia, and then before the 2010 trials I would get so tired and frustrated. I would go into workouts and I wouldn’t be able to finish. I kept asking myself, “What’s going on?” We believe that I can’t just train and expect my body to recover. I had to be proactive about certain therapy and stretching. When it came to the trials, I really didn’t know exactly what I was capable of when I went into the one race that determined whether I would go to the 2010 Olympics or not. I had to beat one girl who had the entire fall to train for this race, while I had been struggling with ups and downs. The nerves were so intense because everything came down to this one race. During the race, it literally came down to the last lap. I had gone out fast to start, but on the last lap, my competitor was coming around the turn faster than I was. My mom was yelling to me to give it everything I’ve got. I finished ahead of her by less than a second in a 3,000-meter race. After I finished I just collapsed from the weight of nervousness, the intensity of the race, the meaning of this win… it was so overwhelming. My mom comes out and we’re just balling and that was the best feeling ever. But it didn’t stop there. I wanted to do well at the Olympics, and since I didn’t have a good base from that fall, the next worry was my performance at the Olympics.
Another test of my faith came when we decided to scrap my boots, and go back to old boots that I used to use. These boots are about $2,000 each, and they are molded to fit my feet, but I just wasn’t feeling great in the new pair. Technique is huge in skating; it’s probably seventy-five percent of the sport. Even more than strength and endurance, it’s your angles, and rock, and the bend of the blade, so everything depends on how the boot sits on the blade and we just felt that my current boots were not helping my technique. So we switched back to the older boots, and I switched my technique to a faster-paced tempo, which is kind of unheard of in a long-distance race. Also, Dave Cruikshank [Four-time Olympic speed skater] helped to coach me alongside my mom. So I switched boots, switched technique, and switched up training.
Finally we cross the line and everyone is dead silent. We look up and we are five-hundredths-of-a-second ahead of the Canadians!
Risen Magazine: So you were basically starting over? How much time did you have before the Olympics in Vancouver?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: I had six weeks. The first two weeks I was so sore because of the faster pace, and I was using muscles that I’d never used before. I was freaking out. And another problem was that my mom was a private coach and she didn’t have the accreditation to actually be considered my coach at the Olympics, so those politics were also getting into my head. But I set all the problems aside and I ultimately turned to prayer. I just said, “Lord, thank you for allowing me to make the Olympic team in the first place.” I had to sit back and realize that my main goal had been making the Olympic team and whatever I did at the Olympics was icing on the cake. I switched perspectives and said, “Okay Lord, why am I here? What do you need me to do?”
Something I’ve always done is prayed before my actual race. We warm up off the ice, then we warm up on the ice, and finally you have a breathing moment right before you approach the line, and that’s when I can pray. I have a peace right beforehand. So during that Olympic race, I did have a peace about me. I smiled, and I just went! It was one of the best races of my life. It didn’t hurt like it normally does; it was a good-feeling race. I finished ninth with a goal of top ten and that was awesome to me. My second race was a team pursuit race. We went into it paired against the Canadians in the first round – it’s a process of elimination. All three of the Canadians were taking top positions in the World Cups that year, so we were pretty nervous. They were ranked first and were predicted to win gold, not to mention the Olympics were in their home country. So the night before, we just worked on our strategy, practiced off the ice, and did some mental games – which my mom helped to lead because she believes so strongly in mental focus and picturing the race in your mind.
When we were racing the next day, we were apparently neck and neck, but we didn’t know that on the ice. Finally we cross the line and everyone is dead silent. We look up and we are five-hundredths-of-a-second ahead of the Canadians! When people ask me about the greatest moments of that Olympics – it was walking the opening ceremony, and then this moment. Even though we ultimately took fourth place, beating those Canadian girls… ohh they were mad. [Laughs]
Risen Magazine: Your brother has also taken to speed skating and the two of you had hopes of competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. What happened on that front?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: Jeffrey, my brother, also went to Vancouver and watched my first race, and when he got there he decided he wanted to pursue skating. At that point, he was attending Wheaton College as well as playing football. He’s super talented at everything and he actually had more of a background in skating than me because he competed much more in local races, but football was kind of his thing. He played for one year at Wheaton under my dad’s coaching but he just decided, “You know what? I could go farther with skating.” He jumped back into skating, but the hard thing about skating is that you really need a solid base. You just need some hardcore, painful training under your belt for leg endurance and everything else, and he just didn’t have that compared to the guys he was training against. He knew it was a huge gamble, but it’s not at all a loss because now he’s going into the next four years with a strong base.
I, however, have been learning some lessons in humility. I tore my hamstring in the fall of 2010. It was misdiagnosed as a pull, rather than a tear, so it healed incorrectly with scar tissue that built up and was pulling on my nerve. That meant that when I trained hard, I would often have throbbing pain, which disrupted my sleeping. This lasted for two-and-a-half years. So, because I wasn’t doing too well that fall, I jumped back into school at Wheaton.
Risen Magazine: Because of the injury, did you even compete in the trials for the 2014 Sochi Olympics?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: Yes I did. Fall of 2010 I tore my hamstring, fall of 2011 I had a stress fracture on my left upper tibia, which took me out for a couple months, then I get back and made some World Cups in which I got a few good results. And finally, in the fall of 2012 I threw out my back and discovered that, from an old injury, I had a chip in part of my spine. The chip wore my discs down so I have three degenerative discs. But right around that time I discovered this woman, named Paula, in Naperville, Illinois, and she literally brought me my life back. My back was with spasms and I could barely stand up. My mom was freaking out but Paula said, “You’ll be fine. I’ve seen bad backs and I can get you to the point of skating, no problem.” After her therapy I had no pain, and I still don’t.
I got back into training after that year-and-a-half process of recovery. I was finally able to train hard. But unfortunately, I basically began to over train again. I got to a point of wanting to quit around the beginning of November, with the trials at the end of December. I really doubted whether I should skate at the trials. I wanted to do it for all the people who had been supporting me, but I was reaching a point of hopelessness. The big thing I had to ask myself was, “After all these years, why am I still skating?” I thought about how close we were to a medal in 2010, but I have learned that success is so fleeting. It’s great to have worldly goals, but at the same time, I always ask the Lord, “Why am I here?” I know that the Lord has brought me to skating because of networking, and sharing my faith.
The people that I am able to reach: that is why I’m skating. I hate training ninety percent of the time! [Laughs] It’s painful. It’s not fun. I know success is worthwhile, but I just have a smile when I’m able to share my faith. Skating, and being an Olympian, has also given me such a platform for sharing my faith, and I love that. After 2010, I was able to go into public schools and give my testimony, and while a lot of it had to do with the Olympics, I was able to slip in my faith story too. It was perfect. It was such a great opportunity to share my faith with a secular world. So I sat back and said, “Okay Lord, I’m going to do this for You.” I saw the Lord working through me in that moment. I changed my perspective, sucked it up, and got back out there.
Workouts started going well again, but I knew that I had three years of injury and there was a really good chance I wouldn’t make it. But I still had the focus to say, “I’m going to make it,” because you need that mindset. You can’t have doubts when you get to the line. During the trials I didn’t have great races. They were probably the best I had raced under those conditions, but I had been hoping for a miracle. Once I missed it, and realized I hadn’t made the team, it was hard. I had to stick around because I wanted to cheer for a few people… which was another lesson my mom drilled into me. She basically said, “People are watching you and when you fail, you still have to share Christ’s love.” I had to suck up my own sadness and remember that I am here on earth for the Lord, and my purpose is to share Christ’s love. He has given me the talent, but I’m using it for a ministry.
I had to switch gears and figure out, “Now what do I do?” I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to school or maybe do media broadcasting for the Olympics. But the broadcasting ended up falling through so I started signing up for classes, and the first class I signed up for happened to be the [Bible] book of James. In that, we talked about finding joy in trials and letting trial run its course and I thought, “Yeah. I have eternal life, how could I not be joyful?” I am so confident and solidified in my faith, and that’s where life should come from!
That’s where I should get my energy every day. And yes, it’s healthy to be sad, but it’s so important to always have that deep down joy because that’s why you’re here on earth. You have that eternal life. Part of it is also letting the trial run its course. All too often we try to stop short something that is painful, but from going through a painful experience, you now have ways to talk to people who are going though the same thing. Each person has a different struggle that can be relatable to someone else. We go through all of our ups and downs because the Lord is equipping us with knowledge on how to share and be His voice here on earth.
In January I was like, “How am I going to be able to watch these Olympics [in Sochi, 2014]?” But after seeing my life through the Lord’s eyes, I was able to actually enjoy watching the Olympics. I decided, “You know what? I’m not there for a reason. And it’s probably a good reason.” I would not have been able to be a part of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) this summer if I had gone to the Olympics. I wouldn’t have the relationships that I built with the girls I worked with, and I am so thankful that I do. Through all these experiences I have been taught something and I am now able to teach other people.
All too often we try to stop short something that is painful, but from going through a painful experience, you now have ways to talk to people who are going though the same thing. Each person has a different struggle that can be relatable to someone else.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of FCA, your parents met at Wheaton College at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. How has their faith shaped your faith? And when, and how, did you see the faith become personal?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: I’d say my mom has influenced my faith maybe a tad more than my dad just because I would spend hours in the car with my mom and she was such a big part of my skating world too. But what I love about my dad is that he is honest and faithful. I love seeing him work with the football players and watching his influence on them. He is such a leader. He’s on fire for the Lord, and I love that about him. My mom is the coach to me, but I’m such a daddy’s girl. My mom is my best friend, but sometimes I see her as more of an authoritative figure. My mom made such a statement in skating by herself, and I love that. She passed out Bibles! My parents went to the FCA meetings sporadically. My mom was in the world, but not of it. She would go to the bars and after-parties, as would I, and be part of the celebration and craziness of skating, but neither of us has ever drunk alcohol. We set ourselves aside from the craziness of what parties can be. I like to go to those things because they can be an opportunity for great conversation. Conversations come up on why I’m not drinking, and I’m able to share my faith because of that.
My mom came before me and showed me how to carry the same integrity, the same characteristics, and the same faith. I’ve loved having the same name as my mom because people automatically know that I am her daughter. They can see that I know how to have fun, but I don’t have to be under the influence of alcohol or anything else. I do have to decipher that it is not because I hold myself higher than anyone else as to why I am not drinking; there is a spiritual reason behind it. My mom and I are normal people with strong faith. My mom is so outspoken and bold. I probably speak out more about my faith than she did; partly because of classes I’ve taken at Wheaton, like Evangelism, where I was taught that it is very important to be intentional about sharing my faith. Any conversation can be an opportunity to share our faith. That’s what we’re called to do! We have this joy, so why aren’t we sharing it more? We are always talking about mainstream things like fashion or media, but we don’t do that with our faith. I’m nowhere near being great at it, but I’m slowly trying to practice that more.
Sometimes it can be stressful with so many elite athletes in the family, but when we all see the perspective of what the Lord is doing in our lives, everything falls into place. We pray and realize that we can rely on Him. We can’t control everything by ourselves. We want to, and sometimes I find it challenging to include the Lord in my life daily, but the number one thing I remind myself of is the importance of prayer. And that’s not just praying with my eyes closed and hands folded, but it’s walking through life with Him all the time and including Him in my decisions. It’s remembering that He is here, He is present, and He wants to be included in my life.
Risen Magazine: With your sights set on South Korea in 2018, what will your next few years look like as you train for another Olympic Games?
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr: Pain! [Laughs] I’m probably in my worst shape right now; it’s pretty bad. I have to step back and say, “My identity is not in my physical self.” I struggle with my image when I’m not in shape because of people’s expectations of an Olympic athlete. But I have to stop caring about the judgments and remember that I love what I am doing right now. I can’t stay in that Olympic-fit shape all the time. It’s so painful! I just can’t be zero percent body fat; it’s not my body-type. Not even close. So anyway, this fall I will probably get back into some light training.
I’ll start my base back up again because I’ve done nothing training-related since the Olympic trials. I focused on school and took a harder workload so this fall will be easier for me. My brother will be training though, so I will probably work with him to slowly develop my base back. And then in December, when I graduate college, I will start fully training – which is morning and afternoon training with recovery in between. I won’t compete next year, I just want to get familiar again with skating, and after that, commit three full years of skating. So once fall of 2015 hits, I will be skating full-time.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2014