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From Carnegie Hall To Pyeongchang, Speedskater Heads To His First Olympic Games

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Kimani Griffin celebrates after placing third the Men's 500-meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center, on Jan. 5 in Milwaukee, Wisc. Photo by Stacy Revere - Getty Images

In just a few weeks, speedskater Kimani Griffin, 27, will join a cast of Olympic first-timers in Pyeongchang. But he's no stranger to the bright lights and big stage — or to public broadcasting.

At age 17, the Winston-Salem, N.C., native was featured on the PBS program, From the Top, when he performed classical guitar at Carnegie Hall. He stepped away from playing music professionally after accepting a full scholarship to college in Georgia. But setting aside his other passion — in-line skating — wasn't as easy.

"I really enjoyed my time (at Columbus State University), but I really missed skating," Griffin says. "I really missed the world of working out and that competitive nature." He thought, "Maybe I'll move to Salt Lake and see if I can go down this path."

Eight years after taking that leap, he's back in his element. Earlier this month, Griffin's third-place finish in the 500-meter race landed him a spot on the eight-man U.S. speedskating team.

From his Brookfield, Wisc., training ground, Kimani Griffin spoke with NPR's Michelle Martin about his journey back to the joy of competitive performance — and how Gucci Mane fits into his routine.

Interview Highlights

On whether qualifying for the Olympics or his Carnegie Hall debut was more nerve-wracking

I think they're about the same. I actually wasn't too nervous or felt under pressure for either one of those experiences. I think in both experiences I was just having fun kind of in my element doing what I do.

On when he shifted his priorities from music to speedskating

Spring and summer of 2008 was kind of a big turning point in my life. I was, at that time, at the top of my game in in-line skating. And with guitar, I had just done an NPR show in Connecticut on the radio; I had just done the Carnegie Hall concert. So I was kind of in a tough spot as far as what I wanted to do in my life, what direction and path I wanted to take. I ended up getting a full-ride (scholarship) to go to school in Georgia, Columbus State University. I really enjoyed my time there, but I really missed skating, I really missed the world of working out and that competitive nature.

I was just kind of like a 19-year-old spur-of-the-moment — maybe I'll move to Salt Lake and see if I can go down this path. Music and sports have been my two outlets in life so luckily when I left school I had another passion to fall back on. I kind of took a risk and — eight years later here I am.

On the joy of speedskating

I guess for the 500 (meters), you have that 34, 35-seconds of — just time essentially stops. You're just in the moment, you can't hear anything, I mean even your coach is screaming at you on the backstretch but you can't even hear him most of the time — at least for me. And I'm just so focused in every little push, every little body angle, every movement that I'm doing to propel myself forward. And then when I cross the line, all of the sudden I hear people screaming and I look at the clock and, hopefully it's a time that I want to see.

NPR's Cara Reedy and Dustin Desoto produced the audio for this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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