With its gray facade and wood shingle roof, Pattison’s West Skating Center in Federal Way looks more like a typical roller rink than an Olympic launching pad.
But when the Winter Olympics begin Friday in Vancouver, two short track speedskaters who got their start there will be among Team USA’s biggest stars.
One is Apolo Ohno, one of the most accomplished winter athletes the U.S. has known. The other is J.R. Celski, an Olympic newbie with a world championship pedigree.
So how did Federal Way, a city without an ice rink, become a training ground for short track speedskating stars?
“I don’t think there’s anything in the water,” Ohno said. “I think you just happened to have some talented guys who worked really hard.”
For Ohno, 27, and Celski, 19, the hard work started on in-line skates, taking lessons from Mike Pattison, current patriarch of what’s arguably the Northwest’s most accomplished roller skating family.
Pattison’s grandfather owned a rink in Redondo Beach, Calif., until it burned to the ground in 1951. His father, Pat, won the sportsmanship trophy at the 1938 Puget Sound Amateur championship. And his son, Shaun, runs Pattison’s North in Spokane.
Mike Pattison, 60, built his Federal Way rink in 1979. It quickly became the speed-skating capital of the Northwest because of its large, fast track.
“And because Mike is a great coach,” said Michele O’Day, a Tacoma resident who raced for Pattison and now has her daughter, Dakota, on a team. “He really cares about all his skaters, and I think that says a lot about him.”
Pattison’s program has won the Northwest championship every year since 1988 while producing more national champions than he can remember.
And, of course, there are the two Olympians with their combined 11 world championships and Ohno’s five Olympic medals on ice.
But Pattison wants to make one thing clear: His love is wheels, not ice. He wasn’t happy to see Ohno and Celski leave.
“I wanted them to stay,” he said. “But, unfortunately, this isn’t an Olympic sport.”
That Ohno’s and Celski’s success is encouraging many of his best skaters to follow in their footsteps doesn’t seem to thrill him either, but he understands and roots for them all.
Dakota, 12, might be the next to make the switch.
“I love skating because I feel like I’m flying,” she said.
The three-time national champ already has watched two practices at Tacoma’s Puget Sound Hockey Center, where former Korean coach Chang Ho Lee teaches short track classes. Both Ohno and Celski got their first taste of ice at the Tacoma rink.
“J.R. has been a big inspiration to her,” Dakota’s mother said. “He still passes on encouragement on Facebook.”
Michele O’Day is like Pattison and most of his racers. She prefers speedskating on wheels and wishes it were an Olympic sport so the talent wouldn’t feel obligated to leave.
The talent drain is nothing new. Most U.S. speedskaters in both long and short track got their start racing on in-line skates.
Tacoma’s K.C. Boutiette was the first to make the transition. He decided to try skating on ice to improve his technique. In a matter of months, he had earned a spot on the 1994 long track speedskating Olympic team. He skated on four Olympic teams.
Joey Mantia, 23, says that of the top 10 in-line skaters in the world last season, nine switched to ice to pursue the Olympics. The only one who stayed? Mantia, who holds five world records and splits his time between Florida and Pattison’s West.
He and his friend Miguel Jose, who grew up skating with Ohno and Celski, have made it their mission to make in-line racing a more high-profile sport.
“We started looking at sports like NASCAR, wrestling and the NFL,” Mantia said. “They are big and popular, and they aren’t Olympic sports.”
So in November, Mantia and Jose launched the National SpeedSkating Circuit, a professional skating league.
The races open with live music, dramatic spotlight athlete introductions and women skating in bikinis. They had more than 400 spectators for their first two events and expect as many as 900 for the next race March 4.
The races are broadcast live in high definition on the league’s Web site, pronsc.com. The racers come from all over the country, but all the races are at Pattison’s West.
“It’s really exciting to be involved with this,” Mantia said, but even he knows the course of his next four years is inevitable.
He plans to make the switch to ice soon and hopes to make the long track team for the 2014 Olympics in Russia. It’s a realistic goal.
Several of the world records Mantia holds once belonged to Chad Hedrick, who won an Olympic medal of every color in 2006 and is competing again in Vancouver.
“He is the Michael Jordan of our sport,” Jose said of Mantia.
When Mantia visits South America – specifically Columbia – where the in-line racing is popular, he says, “I can’t even skate without being mobbed by kids. … I feel like a Backstreet Boy.”
He’s not switching to ice because of a great desire to master another sport. Mantia will make the switch because he knows the doors that an Olympic gold medal can open.
Mantia saw what it did for Ohno.
“Anything could happen, but if I make it, I won’t forget my roots,” Mantia said looking out over the Pattison’s West rink as the speed team trained. “I’ll use it to promote this sport.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497