Race to the top: student skater shoots for the Olympics


Luke Tweddale skates in December 2011 at Milwaukee’s Pettit Center.

Sarah Weatherbee, Copy Editor

Luke Tweddale put on a pair of speed skates for the first time in his life six years ago. Today he is a 2014 Olympic hopeful.

He recalled stepping out onto the ice in secondhand, oversized skates. Then an energetic yet unfocused 12-year-old, he did not know how the sport would change his life. However, he could feel that something in him came alive out there. His restless energy had found a home.

“I just pretty much knew that this was my sport,” Tweddale said.

In Tweddale’s world, time moves fast and slow. He thinks about how to shave off fractions of seconds in his race times, yet plans the course of his life by thinking in four-year cycles; with the resilience it takes to overcome doubt and the discouragement of a bad race day.

Amid a culture and a generation moving fast, with nearly limitless distractions, he has devoted his focus to excelling at this sport. “My philosophy has always been to take the long view and to continue on a very steady upward trajectory of improvement from year to year,” he said.

Now, at 18, this Madison College student is one of the top U.S. speedskaters in his age bracket, holding elite Category 1 athlete status, and a spot on the Junior Level World Team.

He holds short track and long track victories from the 2012 Milwaukee Cup and the 2012 USA Junior Championships. Earlier this year, he represented the United States at the World Junior Championships in Obihiro, Japan.

Still, his success has not come cheap. His parents have invested between $15,000 and $20,000 per year on training, travel and equipment. Tweddale trains an average of 18 hours per week both on and off the ice. At Milwaukee’s Pettit Center, he trains three times per week, meticulously reviewing his technique. He also works on upper body strength training at Monkey Bar Gym in Madison. In the mix, he chips away at college credits that he hopes will lead to career in psychology.

He speaks positively of his experience with Madison College. “I love the teachers. I love the atmosphere. I love my fellow students, and it’s close to where I live,” Tweddale said. With friends, he often finds himself in the position of giving advice, which is why he feels drawn to counseling as a career path.


A transformative sport

Speedskating is a small sport with a tight-knit community. Considered the fastest propelled-sport in the Winter Olympics. Athletes compete for high speed and low time as they skate around the ice track for varying distances. Custom-fitted skates and body skins ensure the athlete has the laws of physics on his side.

While popular in East Asian countries and Northern Europe, the United States has been slower to catch on to the sport. Tweddale would like to see more young people try speed skating and for grassroots clubs to see more action.

“It’s a small sport and we wish it weren’t so,” he said.

Next year at this time, Tweddale will participate in trials for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. He predicts that he will have a better shot at making the U.S. team for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as he will be in his physical prime at that time.

While his life revolves around speed skating, the most important thing about his journey through the sport is how it’s shaped him off the ice.

“Its not really so much about the skating,” Tweddale said, “but it’s a lot about the person you become as a result of having to become so good and be so driven to achieve a single goal.”

At 6’1 and near 190 pounds, he is fit, self-assured and articulate beyond his 18 years. He is no stranger to perseverance. The precarious complications of his birth had him fighting for life.


Determination from birth

Tweddale, an only child, and his parents, John Tweddale and Jenina Mella, gathered around the dining room table in their Madison home and thought about his journey.

In the neonatal ICU, his parents caught early glimpses of his determined personality. “It was just clear even as an infant. That sort of self-directedness has characterized him all the way through,” his mother said.

Ruptured eardrums at an early age resulted in permanent hearing loss, which he corrects with hearing aids.

What the world calls a disability has become an asset in competition. Tweddale removes his hearing aids on race day, and the lack of noise helps him focus. “The only thing you need to hear is the gun going off and you can’t miss that,” he said.

His father, an environmental engineer, and his mother, a former lawyer, chose to home-school their son, believing it was the right path for his interests to naturally unfold, and for his personality and learning style to integrate.

“He was risk-taker. He wasn’t afraid of anything,” said Mella. She remembered him launching himself off of furniture.

“I never really needed to be shielded from the world as a kid, the world actually needed to be shielded from me a little bit because I was very rough with it,” Tweddale added.

Not only did home-schooling allow for the schedule flexibility necessary to pursue speed skating, it also instilled traits that have helped him. “I think, as a skater, in a sport like this that depends on individual drive and autonomous thinking it’s benefited him highly to be home schooled,” Mella said.

While there have been times of uncertainty, the family has stuck with it. “It’s hard, because you can’t look at a bad performance or a bad couple of meets and judge the person on that if you are having a long-term point of view,” Mella said.

Madison has produced several champion speed skaters such as Casey FitzRandolph and Shani Davis. Tweddale considers them mentors. Further, he considers himself lucky for having parents who have supported his dream.


Training a champion

Tweddale warns against pigeonholing oneself into a single event. He likes to keep versatile. While he has had victories in 500-meter races, he focuses on training for 1,000-meter races and up. He feels there is more opportunity for him there.

In order to maintain necessary strength and endurance, Tweddale watches his diet, eating small, nutrition packed meals throughout the day. He still makes room for his favorite food, macaroni and cheese, although he opts for organic ingredients.

He tries to balance skating with school and outside hobbies. It keeps him from being a one-dimensional person, and from the selfishness the intrinsically self-serving sport can harbor.

“In order to succeed, you really have to be thinking about yourself first and last,” he said.

Tweddale belongs to Badger Speedskating Club of Milwaukee and trains with coach Steve Penland. He is always improving his training routine, remembering never to get too comfortable or content.

He makes small changes little by little. Constant change that, over the long term, has brought him to this point and will carry him to the point of being a serious Olympic contender.

Coach Penland emphasized the importance of body awareness. He helps create a visual image for the athlete in order to improve. He said that Tweddale’s strength and size make him unique for his age group.

“He’s got a lot of power, and for him, it’s a matter of being able to use that power efficiently,” Penland said. “What does he have to do for the Olympics? He has to get stronger and faster – that happens with time.”

From fractions of seconds to four-year cycles, time is a force that Tweddale knows well.