The Winter Olympics in Beijing are set to begin next month. Among the Massachusetts natives on the U.S. team is speedskater Julie Letai of Medfield. She joined Arun Rath on GBH’s All Things Considered to talk about her Olympic journey and preparing for the games during the pandemic.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: Julie, thanks for joining us.
Julie Letai: Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me.
Rath: So, speedskating is something that you have to get into it at a pretty young age, right? Tell us how you got into it.
Letai: Yeah. So I actually started skating when I was just 2 years old. I have two older siblings and my mom would bring me to their ice practices, and learning how to skate in general. My mom said that was like the biggest, and one of the only tantrums I had ever had, was because I was so jealous and wanted to skate, too. As soon as she could, my mom bought those little strap-on blades that you can put on the bottom of a snow boot. So I started with that, learning how to skate with her, and then got into figure skating when I was still pretty young, like 4 to 6.
But what I really liked was skating around super fast. I had a substitute teacher one time, and they let us go from end to end of the rink as fast as we could. And I remember just raving to my mom about how much I loved doing that. And then I got to the point in figure skating, where the next step was to enter competitions and that kind of stuff — but the issue was that I was a huge tomboy, and you had to wear tutus to do the competitions, so I was not entertained by that. My mom looked into it and was able to find Bay State Speedskating Club that was just like 20 minutes away from us. So we started going there as like a kind of mother-daughter activity when I was about 7. We were just hooked, and I kept skating. And the longer I did it, the more serious I took it.
Rath: There are different specialties in speedskating. Tell us about about your specialty, what will what people will be seeing from you?
Letai: There's two disciplines of speedskating. Overall, there's long track speedskating and short track speedskating. I do short track, so that's on a 111-meter track. The distances in that for women are: the 1500-meter, which is our longest distance; 1000-meter is the middle; and 500-meter, which is our sprint. And in addition to that, there's also a relay event for women, it's the 3000-meter relay. At the Olympics, I will be participating in the 3000-meter relay with my teammates Kristen [Santos], Maame [Biney], Corinne [Stoddard] and Eunice Lee. There's four of them in an event for people on a team. So, yeah, I'm planning on being in that event.
Rath: I think it's about the most exciting of the winter sports to watch, because every single moment of it is just incredibly exciting as a spectator. For you skating, there's such intense bursts. What are you doing right before that? Because I imagine if you get too hyped up, that's not good.
Letai: Yeah, no. There's definitely a mix, and that's something that I feel like throughout your entire skating career, you're trying to find the perfect balance that works for you. Going into a race, I'm definitely trying to be as relaxed as possible. I use my warmup as a place to get hyped, high intensity, to get my adrenaline going. But when it's time for me to stop and go to the line, I'm trying to be as calm as possible and just kind of trying to have more fun with it, rather than thinking about the stakes and everything.
And it's the same thing when you're in the middle of a race. There's so much going on at once and so much that could be going on at once. So you're trying to predict what's happening while also trying to be super flexible because you have to be able to adapt to whatever happens. So I'm trying to be super relaxed in a race to not panic if something unexpected happens and to make sure that my mind is open to figuring out how to handle whatever situation could arise.
Rath: How fast are you actually getting out there, for reference, when people are speedskating?
Letai: Yeah. So miles per hour, for women, I think would be like 25 to 30 miles an hour when we're at our like top, top speed. So yeah, that's pretty fast.
Rath: Julie, you're a college student as well now, right?
Letai: Yeah. I'm a part-time student at the University of Utah.
Rath: Wow. So how do you balance that out with what must be pretty intense training?
Letai: I'm part time, so I don't make myself take a full course load, which definitely helps. And I've been utilizing online courses the whole time I've been here, too, which has been super helpful because, with our training schedule day to day, it's impossible to find the time to drive to the school and take a multiple-hour class and come back and still be able to do two to three trainings a day. I can also do that while we travel, because we have World Cups and stuff in the middle of the school year, so I'm able to get work done abroad as well.
Rath: That would kind of imply you're also thinking about a future beyond sports. What do you think that might be?
Letai: I haven't decided yet, but I'm definitely leaning towards a health track. I've been interested in global health. I think traveling and everything, that's inspired me to pursue a career where I can think of the world as a whole, rather than just be contained to the United States. I think there's a lot of problems that should be treated more as a global issue, rather than just each kind of country fending for themselves.
Rath: Obviously, the Olympics has been playing out amid the pandemic, but also there's politics around it regarding the Chinese government. Now, politicians have figured out how to do a boycott the right way because you can compete in the Olympics, but there's a what they call a diplomatic boycott. Does any of that stuff get into your head at all as you're getting ready for this?
Letai: Yeah, not much. We're definitely encouraged to just kind of stay on our own lane and we'll continue to do the job that we've been set out to do. We've been getting tons of assurance that we'll have more than enough support coming from home and from our diplomats in the U.S., as well. We totally understand the situation and we know that we came to the Olympics to do our job, which is to do our best in the sport, and that's what we still plan to do.
Rath: And the one thing that that's impossible to ignore, obviously, is the pandemic side of things. Tell us a bit about what things will be like in terms of how competition will play out because of the pandemic in China, but also how it's been affecting you really the whole way up to this point.
Letai: In terms of what to expect from the experience, I wish I could tell you more. Honestly, I don't know what to expect at all. There's a lot of decisions being made every day still about how best to handle it there. So there's no spectators — that will obviously be a different environment, because I enjoy taking the energy from the crowd and everything like that. But at the same time, you know, it makes it easier to focus on the race and what you're there for. So either way, I'm sure we'll be able to do our best.
But COVID definitely has been a factor in how we prepare for the Olympics and has definitely added a lot of stress to it as well. I would say we're probably the most paranoid batch of people that you could find right now because we're doing literally everything we can to not get COVID, to make sure we can participate seamlessly without any roadblocks, which can be tough. We're training with masks on and distancing and everything, which mentally can take a toll. But I mean, it'll definitely be worth it once we're there and we have Team USA staff and USB skating staff is doing everything they can to keep us safe. So we're grateful for that.
Rath: Julie, it's been great talking with you and really pulling for you. And whatever happens, super proud of you from here in Massachusetts. Thank you.
Letai: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Rath: That's Medfield native Julie Letai, a member of the U.S. speedskating team. She'll be competing in the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month.