CAMPTON HILLS – Austin Kleba’s first time on the ice wearing speed skates was not one of his shining moments.
“I fell down my first time on the ice because the skates are different,” said Kleba, who donned hockey skates starting at 3 years old and played that sport until he was 14.
Luckily, that first foray as a speedskater didn’t deter him.
Kleba, who turns 18 on July 27, is one of the elite young speedsters in the country. As it turns out, a cluster of hockey injuries that led to him donning speed skates might have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Were it not for a litany of injuries – a broken toe, broken thumb and broken right collarbone, all in a sixth-month period – Kleba might not have become one of the best young speedskaters in the country.
“After shoulder surgery [for the collarbone] I kept playing and kept trying to come back, but I wasn’t the same,” Kleba said. “Three months back and I dislocated my shoulder.”
Always a strong skater during his hockey career, Kleba turned to speedskating as a way to stay on the ice. He admits it wasn’t love at first sight, but his persistence with the sport has paid off in a big way.
At the end of his first full season in 2015, Kleba was one of the top skaters in the world in his age group at the 500-meter distance. That’s when he knew he had a future as a competitive speedskater.
“That’s when I thought I can do something with the sport,” he said.
Now the former St. Charles North student, who does coursework online rather than in a school, criss-crosses the country to refine his skills. Most of his training takes place at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee with forays to Lake Placid, N.Y., where he attended a camp in mid-July before coming back to the Midwest to train as he prepares for perhaps the most important stretch of his speedskating career.
The International Skating Union CanAm Championships Nov. 17 to 19 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, will indicate if making the 2018 U.S. team for the Winter Olympics is a reality. The 500-meter distance is Kleba’s forte, and he said most skaters reach their peak at 25 or 26 years old for that distance, but he is hopeful he can buck the trend.
“I’m trying to stay focused and do my normal training,” Kleba said.
Training includes a mix of on-ice skates, weightlifting, inline skating intervals outdoors, bike rides and “dry land” workouts off the ice that include form and basic positioning.
“The thought that my training and the Olympic trials are the biggest things I have done in my career, I’ll definitely be nervous before my events but I’m not totally engulfed in it. [The Olympics] are not supposed to be on my radar, but I definitely want to be in the Olympics in 2022.”
The trials for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will take place at a familiar location – Kleba’s home track at Pettit. For someone who has already been around the world – Helsinki in February for the World Junior Championships; Changchun, China, for the World Juniors in March 2016; Hamar, Norway, for the Youth Olympic Games in February 2016, where he was the lone skater from the U.S. – a trip to South Korea in 2018 would be a dream come true and another in a string of wild successes for Kleba.
“Every now and then, someone will remind me of my times and how far I’ve come,” Kleba said. “My first season, people would tell me, ‘This does not just happen, to join a sport and do what you’re doing.”