Four-time Olympian KC Boutiette, inspired to come out of retirement by a U.S. Olympic legend, will skate in an international race for the first time since the 2006 Olympics on Saturday.
Boutiette, 44, pioneered the inline invasion to speed skating in the 1990s, making his Olympic debut at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Games, perhaps the greatest Olympics ever and certainly the most memorable in speed skating. His best Olympic finish was fifth.
Boutiette will return to compete this weekend to that same site, made famous by triumphs from Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Johann Olav Koss 21 years ago.
He is the oldest member of the US Speedskating team at a World Cup competition at the hallowed Viking Ship in Hamar, Norway. He is entered in the 5000m on Saturday and the 1500m and mass start on Sunday.
“I’m not anywhere near what I used to be,” Boutiette, two decades removed from skating with his tongue pierced and bleached blond hair, said in a phone interview. “It’s like I’m starting over. It’s almost like my first year of skating again.”
It began in five-time 1980 Olympic speed skating champion Eric Heiden‘s house in Park City, Utah, in August 2013.
“We were talking about skating and the [Olympic] team and all this stuff and kind of joked around about me skating again,” Boutiette said. “A little bug in my head that he put there. I saw my wife after that, and said well, I might give skating a try.”
A few months later, Boutiette competed at the 2014 U.S. Olympic trials in at the 2002 Olympic oval in Kearns, Utah, just for fun.
“I couldn’t even skate five laps on my own last year,” he said of his physical shape several weeks before trials.
He was pretty distinguishable, the only skater there wearing the 2006 U.S. Olympic speed skating skinsuit.
“I fit in it, believe it or not,” Boutiette said. “Squeezing a sausage into a casing a little bit.”
His times were more ordinary — 13th in the 1500m and 18th in the 500m and 1000m, nowhere near making the Sochi Olympic team.
Boutiette continued, buoyed by the news that a mass start event could be added for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. It’s already on the World Cup program, differentiated from regular races where only two skaters are on the ice at once. Mass start mirrors short track speed skating (but with many more skaters and on the much larger long-track oval) and plays into Boutiette’s experience in marathon skating in the Netherlands.
“The tactics and things like that, that I’m pretty good at,” said Boutiette, whose unretirement made headlines in the Netherlands in the fall. “Speed, endurance, a little bit of everything. It kind of plays into my forte.”
Boutiette earned a spot on the U.S. team for this winter’s World Cups at the U.S. Championships three weeks ago, where the lack of depth gave him a chance.
Only four men entered the longest distances of 5000m and 10,000m. Boutiette finished second in the 5000m and third in the 10,000m, averaging about 30 seconds slower than when he shattered the American records in the events at the 2002 and 1998 Olympics, respectively.
“My back is totally blown out,” Boutiette said. “It’s hard for me to skate five minutes at a time. The 10K [which required 14 minutes, 24.04 seconds] is just brutal.”
Boutiette said he’s trained with four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, the best U.S. speed skater for the last several years.
“He kicked my ass not too long ago,” Boutiette joked. “I thought I’d be able to help him out. I led every other set, then the last set, I couldn’t do it. He put the hammer down. That kid works hard.”
So Boutiette is back in Hamar, some 21 years after his first Olympics. He remembers being in the Viking Ship to catch every memorable moment of those Winter Games — Blair’s two golds, Jansen’s long-awaited victory and the Norwegian Koss bringing the house down with three world records.
“I made sure I was on the ice, actually, when [Koss] was skating the 1500m,” Boutiette said. “Listening to the crowd.”
Boutiette hasn’t committed to trying to make the 2018 Olympic team. As it stands, his last Olympic race was not the way he wanted to end his international career.
Boutiette was looking for his first Olympic medal in Torino in 2006, with the addition of the team pursuit. He was the veteran on a trio of former U.S. inliners, including Chad Hedrick and Charles Leveille.
The U.S. led for most of its quarterfinal matchup with Italy but fell behind with Boutiette setting its pace in the latter stages. When Boutiette shuffled to the back of the U.S. train, he lagged, flailing his arms in a desperate attempt to regain contact with Hedrick and Leveille.
In team pursuit, the clock stops when the third skater for a team crosses the finish line after eight laps and 3200m.
If Boutiette had crossed with Hedrick and Leveille, it would have been very close. Instead, Italy won by .47 of a second, eliminating the U.S. one step shy of the medal rounds.
“K.C., as soon as the race was over, was crying, came up to me and said he gave it his all, that the tough thing for him was, he was going to have to live with, was knowing he fell behind with two laps to go,” Hedrick reportedly said in Torino.
Boutiette, then 35, left the 2006 Olympics with a comment reflecting his place in the sport that could be repeated in Hamar this weekend.
“I’m not a young buck anymore,” he said.