Chasing an Olympic dream

For most folks over 50, there are two realistic ways to get to the Olympic Trials;

— as a coach or with the support personnel staff;

— as a spectator.

Urbana’s 53-year-old Theron Sands is attempting to demonstrate there’s a viable third way.

Sands is in an odds-defying venture to earn a berth on the United States speedskating team for the 2018 Winter Games.

He is currently ranked fourth nationally in the men’s 10,000 meters.

“It’s very historic that a 53-year-old man can compete against 25-year-olds at the top level,” Wisconsin-based coach Bob Fenn said.

“It’s every bit a miracle,” added Mahomet’s Erik Henriksen, a former Olympic speedskater and another of Sands’ coaches.

Fenn understands the skepticism. Before he began working with Sands — a native of Biloxi, Miss. — six years ago, he was more than a doubter.

He was a non-believer.

“No way. I’d say, ‘You’re crazy,’” Fenn said. “My dad would have said, if a 53-year-old beat a 22- or 23-year-old, ‘Take off the skates and take up another sport,’” Fenn said.

Sands is making a habit of proving people wrong.

To qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meters, Sands needed a time under 7 minutes, 1 second. He was clocked in 6:58.94 on the same Milwaukee track where the Trials will be held next January.

He has since lowered his personal-best to 6:54.18.

When the Trials take place, Sands expects fewer than 10 American athletes will seek an Olympic berth in the 5,000. The winner — and possibly the runner-up — will qualify for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

“This sport takes an immense amount of sacrifice,” said Sands, who was a high school tennis player. “If you want to be good, you have to be all in. If you’re not, you’re just there making noise.”

Sands was on the verge of making the U.S. National team during the 2015-16 season, but illness and a foot injury curtailed his bid.

“I had a spur that broke through the side of my (right) foot,” Sands said.

He had surgery in March, 2016, to repair a detached tendon.

Since his return, he is faster than before. He posted his top career time in the 10,000 meters (13:57.62) less than 90 days ago in Calgary.

As for his misfortunes last year, Sands called them, “just a bump in the road.”

Both Henriksen and Fenn marvel at Sands’ progress and development.

“He’s definitely a threat,” Fenn said. “He’s a pure athlete; a world-class athlete.”

“They’d better take him seriously,” Henriksen said. “He’s knocking on the door.”

Sands underwent testing at the Health and Human Performance Lab, at Marquette University.

“One person did better and he was a 21-year-old marathoner,” Sands said.

“With his lung capacity, he blew the Human Performance Lab off the charts,” Fenn said.

Sands — and his coaches — are  in the process of soliciting funds so he can relocate in August to be near facilities where ice time is more readily available. An account has been established in his name at Chase Bank.

If he were fortunate enough to land a major sponsor, such as Kraft, Sands said he would play the part.

“I could be the cheesiest skater on ice,” he said.

Henriksen would like to see a Walter Mitty-wannabe recognize the uniqueness of this bid.

“I hope people want to live vicariously through what this guy is doing,” Henriksen said.

Until he returns to the ice, Sands is diligent in his training. He works out six days a week, usually for three hours. On days he adds 30- to 50-mile bike rides, he dedicates up to seven hours of his day to training.

His dryland workouts include a drag-bag resistance endeavor where he pulls a 45-pound weighted bag.

“He goes about 40 yards in 10 seconds,” Fenn said.

By the time he completes three sets of those, and another drill designed to mimic turns where he does crossover moves, Sands said, “the dryland workouts are way harder than skating.”

With Fenn’s help, Sands has transformed his body.

“When I started training with Bob, I weighed 270,” Sands said. “Now I’m at 210 and I’ll be at 195 before the Trials.”

Sands has lived in Champaign County since 1991, when he was transferred by the Air Force to Chanute. When that facility in Rantoul closed, he remained and has held a variety of jobs, some of which he had while working his way through the University of Illinois.

He currently works for C-U Under Construction.

People around the world are learning about Sands’ ability. In the March meet at Calgary, he beat the top-ranked 5,000-meter speedskater from Taiwan before winning by six seconds in the 10,000 meters over a 21-year-old competitor from China.

“And the guy wanted a picture with him afterwards,” Fenn said,

Sands is not finished yet.

“In the past year, I’ve made so many gains in my speed,” Sands said. “I’m continually getting better and better.”

In a sport dominated by youth, Sands is seeking to show that age is not a limiting factor.

By contrast, consider the Olympic speedskating career of Champaign native Bonnie Blair. She made her first Olympic team as a 19-year-old. By 23, Blair was not only an Olympic champion but also an Olympic record-holder.

At age 29, she became the first American woman with five Olympic gold medals.

Why the mention of Blair, who was a member of U.S. Olympic teams in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994?

When Blair was born in 1964, Theron Sands was 11 days old.

Categories (4):News, Misc., People, Sports

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