Teen on track to become Olympic speed skater
By Suzanne Baker firstname.lastname@example.org February 12, 2014 9:06PM
Speed skater Brandon Molenda, 15, of Aurora competes at the American Cup 1 in Salt Lake City in October 2013. ~ SUBMITTED PHOTO
Updated: February 14, 2014 2:35AM
AURORA — While speed skater Brandon Molenda will be competing this weekend for a shot at the junior championships in Norway, his mentor Shani Davis will continue his quest for a medal in Sochi, Russia.
The Aurora teen will be racing in the U.S. Junior Long Track Championship in Milwaukee, on an ice rink where he trains three days a week.
While Brandon did not make the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, it wasn’t for lack of trying. At age 15, the sophomore at Metea Valley High School was the youngest speed skater at the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City, posting personal bests in the 500-meter, 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter races.
Brandon is hopeful Davis, who he has known since he was 4 and who he affectionately calls “Uncle Shani,” will medal in the upcoming week.
Brandon’s mother Cecille remembers how Davis in 2006 helped her son after Brandon said he wanted to quit.
“When he was 9, he said, ‘Mom, I do not want to skate anymore,’” she said.
“Shani said, ‘You make the decision. I’ll miss you, but you need to be the one who decides,’” Brandon said. “No one pushed me to do it after that. I wanted to skate.”
Now Cecille encourages her son to pay it forward to the next generation of young skaters. “Just like Brandon looks up to Shani, little boys look up to him,” Cecille said.
Finding mental strength
Despite the breakthrough in 2006, Brandon admits he really lacked focus. It wasn’t until the 2012-13 season when Brandon broke a leg that he realized he could change his destiny.
Sitting on the sidelines watching his friends compete churned up a desire not only to compete again, but to win.
His mother said within hours of getting the doctor’s OK, Brandon was working with a physical therapist who specializes in speed skaters. In just three months, Brandon was back and racing better than ever. He went on to break the long track record in the 500-meter, 800-meter and 1,000-meter races in the Junior C Men (age 13-14) category.
While Brandon had the passion, returning to the ice wasn’t easy.
“It’s the fear first. You wonder if you are going to be able to get back to the same level,” he said. “You have to get mentally strong.”
That same mental strength he sought to come back from an injury is what Brandon draws upon during practice and competing at events like the Olympic trials and the Junior Nationals.
“It’s not fun doing practice,” he said. “Some days you feel like throwing up.”
“On days when I feel like quitting practice early, my coach just asks, ‘Are (your rivals) going to give up?’”
He said the question shifts his focus on what is at stake.
Despite his notoriety on the ice, Brandon tries to keep a low profile. To fellow Metea students, Brandon is just a kid who gets out of school earlier.
His mother said her son’s class schedule is structured so he’s done by 12:30 p.m. His coach picks him up and drives him to practice.
“The high school has been very accommodating,” she said.
Brandon trains six days a week: two to four hours in practice on weekdays and Sundays and the whole day on Saturday.
Because he only has a driving permit (he’ll get his license in June), Brandon must be chauffeured around by someone. His parents said they’re thankful his coach has taken on that challenge.
In the typical week, Brandon traverses roughly 800 miles commuting to and from practice.
Where practice is located depends on the day. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, Brandon makes a 200-mile roundtrip trek to Milwaukee. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’ll travel 80 miles to Park Ridge and back. Sunday is a meager 40 miles round trip to Addison.
Because he’s in a vehicle so much, many a homework assignment is finished on the road, he said.
Brandon said his schedule leaves little to no time for high school friends during the school year. It’s late when he gets home from practice on school nights, and weekends often are spent practicing or racing.
“After skating season is over, we hang more,” he said.
“I feel bad he doesn’t get to play a sport or go to basketball and football games like the other kids,” said his father, Brian. So Brandon’s parents look for other ways to give Brandon a chance to be a kid.
Brian said the speed skating world is almost like an extended family, and many of the kids get together during down times.
As for the future, Brandon would like to compete in the 2018 Olympics. But for right now, his sights are set on Norway, and his next big challenge.