Southern California’s Olympic speed skaters

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Wilma Boomstra and speed skaters at the Glacial Gardens arena in Lakewood. Photos by Matt Holzman.

There are more Southern Californians competing on the U.S. Olympic team right now than from any other part of the country.  We won’t have the same bragging rights two years from now at the winter games in Sochi, Russia.

Of course, some greats have come from these parts, like figure skaters Michelle Kwon – who was born in Torrance – and Sasha Cohen, from Westwood.   It’s a little surprising that these cold weather champions hail from the Southland, known more for beaches and palm trees. But we’re now starting to become known for another winter sport. KCRW’s Matt Holzman has more.

It’s downright chilly inside the Glacial Gardens arena in Lakewood, though not for the 15 or so skaters working out on the ice.

A line of speed skaters glide around the rink leaning forward, pushing hard, they’re going fast but it looks like they’re in slow motion.  There’s a tall, powerful guy in front, and the rest of the pack descends in size all the way down to a nine-year-old – who’s keeping up rather nicely I must say. And they’re not all boys.

Alexa Bekele is 13 years old. Her mom Alexandria Gales drives her here every morning from Laguna Niguel.    She’s wrapped up tight in a pashmina, sitting on the bench that’s usually reserved for hockey players.

“It’s very funny when I leave the rink,” Gales said, “because I’ll have my boots on and all my snow gear, and it’s hot outside.”

Wilma Boomstra and US Olympic Team Coaches Medal presented to her by Olympian JR Celski (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But all the sitting on the freeway and sitting in the cold has paid off. Gales said her daughter started as a figure skater at 5 years old. But then she saw Apolo – heartthrob Olympic gold-medalist Apolo Anton Ohno – and decided “I want to be edgy,” Gales said. “And so she started speed skating.”

Ohno’s one of the main reasons for the popularity of speed skating in the US.  The main reason the sport’s big here in Southern California is coach Wilma Boomstra. “People come from all over the world to train with Coach Boomstra,” Gale said.

Boomstra has coached a really incredible list of Olympic, World Team and Junior World Team skaters from here and abroad.  She’s been building a world-class skating program in Southern California for about decade.

“It’s not a very well known sport, so people don’t know about it,” Boomstra said. “Everybody that hears about it thinks it’s amazing, that it’s so cool.”

With her amazing shock of frizzy blonde hair, Wilma has the intensity of all serious athletes.  She planned to coach after her skating career at home in the Netherlands, but a mountain biking accident sped up that plan.  in 1993, she was recruited to coach the US Team at the Olympic Training Center in Marquette, Michigan and then got married and moved here. “I miss the Netherlands,” Boomstra said, “but I love living here.”

Here, she’s training tomorrow’s Olympians, brought here every morning by parents like Alexandria Gales.

“Hopefully I’ll get a medal at the Olympics for being one of the greatest moms,” Gales said, laughing. “I just feel lucky to live in Southern California, where this coach is.”

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described one of the skaters as being a member of the Danish junior team; he is, in fact, from the Dutch junior team.]