Uni High's Jonathan Kuck: A dream come true
He's been known to pass the time on an exercise bike by reading a physics textbook. The next time he purposely draws attention to himself will be the first. In short, Jonathan Kuck is as studious and unassuming as they come.
"Jonathan's pretty quiet," said Paul Marchese, Kuck's personal speedskating coach. "He doesn't showboat anything, and his family's pretty quiet, pretty reserved. Jonathan has somewhat of a reputation as a bookworm."
So imagine the startled reaction of Marchese and Kuck's fellow training partners the first time this Olympics-bound Champaign native turned into the athletic equivalent of the cool poker player finally showing his winning hand. Whether playing soccer or ultimate frisbee during the group's off-ice warmup session, the 19-year-old Kuck spoke volumes with his try-topping-this athletic exhibition.
"Maybe because we thought he wasn't an innate social creature, we didn't know what kind of skills he would have," Marchese said. "But actually, he was fantastic. ... It did open some eyes, that OK, this guy doesn't live his life in a single room and just study and he can't do anything else. He's quite a very good all-around athlete."
Good enough to make it all the way to next month's Vancouver Winter Olympics while taking the road less-traveled in his sport.
By the time Kuck graduated from Urbana University Laboratory High School in 2007, he'd invested nearly a decade in speedskating and was seeing tangible results. Most notably, he had attained Category 1 Athlete status in both short and long track, making him eligible for U.S. Speedskating training sessions and camps.
But with college looming, this would be the proverbial fork in the road for Kuck.
It's not uncommon for promising speedskaters to relocate after graduating from high school – and sometimes even before, as Champaign short-track Olympian Katherine Reutter did during her senior year at Centennial – to take advantage of the top U.S. facilities and training programs. For skaters seeking year-round indoor training on a long track, the two current viable destinations are Milwaukee (site of the Pettit National Ice Center) and Kearns, Utah (site of the Utah Olympic Oval).
For Kuck to do the same, however, would have meant compromising on his determination to get the highest quality college education available to him. With neither Milwaukee nor the Salt Lake City area offering a university the caliber of his hometown University of Illinois, he decided to remain in Champaign to pursue a degree in physics engineering. As important as speedskating was to Kuck, education was more so.
"I think it always has been," he said. "My parents have always stressed to me academics are important and motivated me to pursue them. I think it's just the way I grew up."
With his path chosen, Kuck now was forced to take a hard look at his skating career. He knew he wanted to continue. He also knew it would be challenging, possibly even unworkable, to keep his skating arrow pointed upward while continuing to train in Champaign.
"The main question was how seriously I would do it and whether I could make it work out," Kuck said. "I guess there maybe was a bit of a doubt."
Among the challenges Kuck faced was the sparse amount of available training time at the heavily-booked UI Ice Arena. As a member of the Champaign Regional Speedskating Club, Kuck was able to utilize the short-track facility three times a week, with one session lasting one hour and the other two 45 minutes apiece.
Thus, a guy competing against the nation's best typically was on the ice merely 2 1/2 hours per week.
"So I had to be efficient with the way I used my time," Kuck said. "You've got to cram stuff in fast. You have to make it more intense. You have to schedule less rest."
In that situation, too, dryland training became even more important to Kuck's development. As a youngster, he'd been schooled on the value of such training by Mahomet speedskating coach Bruce Merrill. Kuck took those lessons to heart, performing exercises that simulated skating motions and strengthened skating-specific muscles. He also incorporated weightlifting, cycling, running and inline skating into his off-ice training routine.
"I believe that getting lots of ice time is overrated, very overrated for long track," Merrill said. "Short track is a whole different story ... but for long track, basically all you need is good technique and be very strong."
Entering college, Kuck kept an open mind on whether to concentrate on short or long track. In time, the decision made itself. As a freshman, he won the 2008 U.S. Junior Long Track Championships title, then repeated the following year.
Those feats would pale in comparison, however, to what Kuck achieved in February 2009 in Zakopane, Poland. Against the world's best, Kuck placed second overall at the World Junior Championships – the highest finish by an American in that meet since 1993. The performance also put Kuck in historically elite company. He became one of merely six U.S. skaters to reach the medals podium at this meet, a group that includes five-time Olympic champion Eric Heiden and Trevor Marsicano, a 1,000-meter gold medalist at the 2009 World Single Distance Championships.
Marchese, who has coached Kuck for about the past year, marvels at the fact that these feats were accomplished while the skater was training basically on his own.
"He's a pretty smart kid and he learned from the various camps that he had attended in the past," Marchese said. "He took bits and pieces from different programs and different camps and started to weave together his own training program.
"Given the fact that he's been in a loosely stitched-together program on his own, I think he's been able to pull himself up to an extremely high level of the sport."
High enough that it made sense, with the 2010 Olympics looming, for Kuck to withdraw from the UI this school year and concentrate full time on skating.
"To make an Olympic team, it starts in mid-October," said Kuck's father, David. "There's no way you could really take that seriously and go to college. We had a serious discussion about doing (only skating for) 12 months. It would make sense."
It also made sense to move to Milwaukee and take advantage of the Pettit facilities. Kuck relocated there last July.
"Based on the previous season's results, I thought that I should have a pretty good shot at making the (Olympic) team," he said. "I figured that if I moved up to Milwaukee, it would just help me even more."
Certainly, the availability of ice time no longer is an issue. Unless he's on the road at a meet, Kuck trains five or six days a week at Pettit National Ice Center with a solid 90 minutes of work per session sandwiched around 45-minute warmups and cool-downs.
Milwaukee also is where Marchese, who is based in New York state, commutes to train Kuck and other skaters under his wing.
"I think for kids who grow up outside Milwaukee, at some point you start making the pilgrimage there to train if you have some interest in long track," Marchese said. "Eventually you need to relocate, which he's done."
Although Kuck never before had lived in Milwaukee, he's no stranger to the Pettit facility. While attending the UI, he would travel to Wisconsin for weekend training every two or three weeks. Still, Kuck never has considered his many years on a short track at the UI Ice Arena as a hindrance to his development as a long-tracker, even though there is a significant difference between the two lengths (111 meters compared to 400).
In fact, says Kuck, all that training time on a short track has been beneficial to his long-track skating in at least one area.
"Doing short track helps your corners in long track a lot," he said. "When you skate short track you pretty much only skate in the corners. There isn't very much straightaway. So it can help in some ways. Some long-track skaters will skate once or twice a week short track to work on their corners."
The long and short of Kuck's decision to move to Milwaukee is this: It paid off.
In October, the 6-foot, 175-pounder qualified for the U.S. World Cup team in four events. He also set a new Pettit track record last fall in the 3,000 meters – a mark previously held by such notables as 2006 Olympic champion Shani Davis and Marsicano.
Then, on Dec. 30 Kuck received the news he'd dreamed of hearing for years. When U.S. Speedskating announced its long-track team roster for the Vancouver Games, the Champaign native was selected to compete in team pursuit.
"I'm pretty excited," he said. "I've put a lot of effort into it and was hoping to make it for a long time. So I'm definitely pretty happy that I made it happen."
The news got even better the second weekend of January, when Kuck was informed by U.S. Speedskating that he'd get to skate in an individual event in Vancouver. For that, Kuck can thank Shani Davis, who decided to opt out of the 10,000 meters and reduce his number of individual events to four.
"I told Jonathan you are literally going to have your 15 minutes of fame," Marchese said, alluding to the approximate time of a 10,000-meter race. "I'm super happy that he's going to have a chance to step out on his own."
Kuck, who turns 20 on March 14, doesn't see Vancouver as an ending point. Instead, it's an exclamation point on a journey he'd like to travel for as long as it will take him. Already, Kuck has plans for March, having qualified on Jan. 24 for the World Allround Championships in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
"I think I'll just keep playing it by ear," Kuck says. "I'll go back to school next year, I think, and just try to keep doing my best and keep improving."
Marchese, for one, wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Kuck's career takes him to Sochi, Russia – site of the 2014 Winter Games. In fact, his coach already views Kuck and Olympic teammates Marsicano and Brian Hansen – all 20 or younger – as "the next generation" of U.S. men's speedskating.
"He's a great talent," Marchese said of Kuck. "I know he's going to have a bright future."