Trevor Marsicano, once bullied as a boy to the point of depression and overdose, became the teenage star of speed skating five years ago.
He won four medals at the March 2009 World Single Distance Championships and, at 19, was the youngest gold medalist in the event’s history dating to 1996.
Marsicano briefly held the world record in the 1000m — over two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis — for about 20 minutes.
He was no Michael Phelps, but, still, a teen capable of multiple Olympic medals before precociousness became trendy (see Missy Franklin, Gabby Douglas and Mikaela Shiffrin).
“I got to see what it’s like at the top,” Marsicano said, “and I got to see what it’s like being at the bottom again.”
Marsicano, now 23, enters this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Trials hoping to make his second Olympic team. His qualification is by no means assured. A back injury persists that first flared in the season leading into the 2010 Olympics and since threatened to knock him out of the sport.
In 2010, the speed skating events at the Vancouver Games took place on the same oval as his breakthrough at the 2009 World Championships, but the results were far different.
Marsicano finished no higher than 10th in three individual races that he won medals in a year earlier.
He earned a silver medal as part of the U.S. men’s team pursuit, but even that didn’t go as planned. Marsicano competed in the first round and benched himself before coaches could choose the medal-round roster.
“I decided this just isn’t my day,” Marsicano said after watching teammates Chad Hedrick, Brian Hansen and Jonathan Kuck shock the Netherlands in the semifinals to clinch a medal.
Worse days would follow. Marsicano reinjured his back before the 2011-12 season, tried to skate through it but eventually underwent an MRI. He had a tear in his L4 and L5 discs and sat out the remainder of the World Cup schedule.
He started but couldn’t finish the 2012-13 season. The back pain was too much, and he thought about leaving the sport last summer.
“I don’t know permanently, but at least a small amount of time just because I was tired of living with the pain,” said Marsicano, who still wakes up and is in too much discomfort to train on some days. “Not to sound cheap, but if I’m not going to be making all that much [money], and I’m going to have to work a part-time job in order to speed skate, is it worth living this life? If I’m 40 years old and have to get this replacement [surgery] and that replacement, can I afford it?”
Marsicano began playing hockey at age 4 but gave it up for speed skating during a troubled youth that saw him bullied in Ballston Spa, N.Y.
His sister said his forehead was “bashed against tables” in eighth grade. Scratches were visible from kids putting their hands around his neck. School administrators urged him to stay home, his mother said. He overdosed on depression medication and said he didn’t want to live anymore.
He began home-schooling and dropped hockey to focus on speed skating. He rose quickly but suffered a setback in 2004 when another skater’s blade sliced his leg to the femur in a short track race. He was told half of his body’s blood volume spilled out.
Marsicano got back up and, at 16, was the youngest competitor at the 2006 U.S. Olympic short track trials.
He switched to long track, left his family to live and train in Salt Lake City, Utah, and then Milwaukee before the 2010 Olympics. He slept in the basement of another skater’s home. Now, he and girlfriend Jilleanne Rookard, also an Olympic speed skater, live with a host family in Waukesha, Wis.
Marsicano beat Shani Davis in a World Cup 1500m race in Salt Lake City on Feb. 18, 2011. He hasn’t finished better than sixth in off-and-on World Cup appearances since and re-experienced feelings of depression in the year after the 2010 Olympics.
He’s about one second slower this season than he was at his best in 2008-09 in the 1000m and 1500m. In speed skating, that’s the difference between medals and fighting to make the U.S. Olympic Team.
“I look at it two different ways,” Marsicano said. “If I look at it like I could have won all these medals, of course it drives me nuts. The other perspective, I’m in pain when I skate, but I’m also in pain walking up and down the stairs. On and off the ice, it’s very hard to deal with and come to grips with.”
There is optimism. His best times this season are his fastest since 2009. Marsicano believes he still possesses the ability to race like he did five years ago.
“You may not win today, but you did win at one point,” he said. “That’s something to be happy and proud of.”