At an Oval in Obihiro, Japan, Brittany Bowe crossed the line to win the season-opening 1500-meter World Cup race in November.
It was Bowe’s first World Cup victory in two seasons, and the time that flashed on the board marked a track record. Among the skaters who finished behind her: Ireen Wuest and Miho Takagi, the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists in the event.
This was one more to add to the list of 17 World Cup victories Bowe already had. But winning has not lost its novelty, not after two challenging seasons that left her wondering if she could return to the level that made her one of the best.
Bowe was back, and she knew it.
“[That race] really proved to myself that I still do have what it takes to be the best in the world,” she said in a telephone interview last month.
For the past six years, Bowe, 30, has been among the sport’s top sprinting talent: she’s a world champion in both the 1000m and 1500m, a two-time sprint world champion, and an Olympic bronze medalist in team pursuit. Among the peaks of her career was the 2015-16 season, when Bowe won more individual medals at the World Single Distance Championships than any other athlete.
But in the summer of 2016, a collision during training left her with a concussion. Bowe was cleared to train a few weeks later, but her symptoms continued to linger. She had fainting spells and blood pressure issues and struggled with balance, so essential in a speed-based sport spent on ice. Though she reached the World Cup podium in December 2016, Bowe decided to end her season early, which she later called “one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”
Bowe returned home to Florida in early 2017, but found she felt worse without training. She then relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, hoping a daily structure would put her back on track.
Teammates admired her strength and positivity in the face of the injury. Joey Mantia, one of Bowe’s Olympic teammates, called her “mentally stronger than anyone I’ve ever met in my life…I’ve never once heard her be negative about the situation.”
But concussions, as Bowe knows all too well, can be particularly cruel. She said in April 2017, “At times I feel really opposite of optimistic. I feel like sometimes…my willpower has been taken from me, my patience has been taken from me.”
A doctor in Colorado Springs suggested Bowe print out images of herself – ones that summoned her strength and power – as reminders of all she’d accomplished already. Bowe chose a few race pictures and podium shots and hung them up in her living room as she trained for the Olympics.
The injury also came at a particularly challenging time, just before a crucial pre-Olympic season. Bowe knew first-hand that even perfect training does not always yield Olympic success: she’d been pegged as a medal favorite in the 1000m and 1500m prior to the Sochi Games, but came up short of the podium in each of her races, calling those Olympics “one of the biggest disappointments of my career.”
The concussion meant Bowe had limited training ability in the summer and fall before the Olympics, and said she felt at 75 to 80 percent of her normal capacity by the time she stepped on the ice in South Korea. But instead of worrying about a less-than-perfect lead-up to the Games, Bowe said she was simply “grateful to have the opportunity to skate again.”
Bowe finished in the top five in each of her individual races in PyeongChang, calling those performances “some of the best races of my life considering the training I was able to do leading into that competition.” The U.S. had not originally qualified in the women’s team pursuit, but was given a place after quotas were re-allocated (once it was determined that Olympic Athletes from Russia would not compete in the event). Bowe and her teammate Heather Bergsma, also a multi-world champion, were so focused on their individual events that they debated whether to skate the team pursuit. Ultimately, they agreed to go for it. After the qualification round, Bowe said, “we were like, ‘we have a real shot to do something special here.’”
Bowe, Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens (who skated in the semi-final) won bronze in team pursuit, claiming the first medal for U.S. women in speed skating since 2002. For Bowe, winning her first Olympic medal in a team event – after all the support she’d received to get back on the ice – seemed fitting. “When I sit back and think of it, it’s kind of how it should’ve been. It took a team to get me there,” she said.
Following the Olympics, Bowe won a silver medal at the World Sprint Championships in March before taking a few months off. She got back into the yoga studio, and went on a retreat in Costa Rica, spending her days meditating, surfing and hiking.
After a strong start to the 2018-19 season, Bowe has high expectations for herself at this year’s World Single Distance Championships, which begin Thursday. She’s currently leading the World Cup standings in both the 1000m and 1500m, with three wins this season in the 1000m and two in the 1500m.
She plans to keep skating through the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, an Olympic gold medal still atop her list of career goals.
“I’m forever grateful for my team and support for bringing me that medal in the team pursuit,” she said. “But I’m still out for more.”
Bowe no longer has podium pictures of herself in the living room – she’s since moved back to Salt Lake City. But she hasn’t ruled out using them as an inspirational tool again. Or, she said, “hopefully I am my strongest and most confident going into my next winter Olympics, where I can just have that image of what I want to see in my mind.”
She could leave Worlds with another image of herself on the podium. One more to hang up on her wall, should she ever need it.