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Sports

On the doorstep of an Olympic dream

Skater Austin Kleba pushing for spot on 2018 U.S. team

CAMPTON HILLS – Austin Kleba had his chance to live the “normal life.”

Now, with Kleba on the doorstep of realizing a speedskating Olympic dream, it must take a back seat.

The 18-year-old former St. Charles North student uprooted his suburban life in Campton Hills to train full-time in Milwaukee. That included continuing his high school education online. Sometimes, he won’t see friends for two months at a time.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates for an “active” 18-year-old male, one needs 3,200 calories per day. While his training regimens ranged depending on the day during the summer, Kleba ate five or six meals daily and burned upward of 5,000 calories balancing a plethora of physical demands in training alone.

In his fourth overall season as a speedskater, Kleba, at 5-foot-6, 160 pounds, understands what’s at stake: A possible ticket to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as one of the youngest challengers for Team USA in a sport where one doesn’t generally reach their peak until midway through their 20s.

Kleba is simply arriving a bit ahead of schedule. He will skate in the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials Jan. 2 to 7 in Milwaukee.

“Sometimes you want to have that ‘normal life,’ but at the same time, there’s a lot of people that would kill to be in the position that I’m in,” Kleba said. “You have to keep your goals in mind and realize what you’re doing it for.”

The goal: rank among the top three male finishers in either the 500, 1,000 or 1,500-meter events to punch the ticket to South Korea. Conveniently, the trials are being hosted at his home rink, Pettit National Ice Center.

It’s possible Kleba could compete in the mass start event as well, but the 500-meter figures to be his best opportunity. He sits fourth-fastest in the country for that event.

“I think it’s crazy the position I’ve gotten myself into this year,” Kleba said. “I always thought it was possible, I just didn’t know if I could get to it by this time. I’m definitely in contention. ... I just trust the program that I’m on right now.”

Three individuals already have penciled in spots through previous World Cup performances. Should Kleba skate faster than any of them in an event at the trials, he’ll take a spot – an occurrence Kleba indicates isn’t unheard of.

“It’s not like that doesn’t ever happen,” Kleba said. “It can happen, and it has happened. I’m in a good spot, and if I go to the Olympics, I’ll have the experience. I’m not even close to be in position to medal. I still have a lot of training I got to do under my belt. I want to come back in four years, and my goal is to get that medal.”

Kleba transformed his unique gift into an Olympic dream in short order. After enduring injuries that cut short his youth hockey career at age 14, he turned to speedskating. That paired his obvious ice talents – speed and skating – to achieve international stardom in a matter of years.

Kleba added yet another accolade to his growing skating résumé last month at a World Cup in Salt Lake City. Kleba bested the American Junior Record with a time of 35.40 in the 500-meter B division – an achievement that was held by fellow American Mitch Whitmore since 2009.

Kleba now is focused on what’s ahead.

“I say the word ‘surreal’ a lot,” he said.

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