Inspired by “The Queen’s Gambit,” speed skater Brittany Bowe wants to learn to play chess.
She’ll have plenty of time to take up a new sport while ensconced in the month-long “bubble” surrounding two World Cups and the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
Bowe asked Matt Kooreman, a US Speedskating coach and chess aficionado, to bring a chessboard on the trip.
“It’s a huge mental game and I love that aspect of it,” Bowe said. “He said, ‘You better be careful, though, or you’re going to become obsessed with it.’ He knows where my mind is at.”
Well, actually, she’s more obsessed with recapturing her position as the Queen of the 1000m.
Spanning the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Bowe won seven straight races – a record for a U.S. woman – and set the world record of 1 minute, 11.61 seconds before finishing fifth in a World Cup in Calgary, Alberta.
She then had a horrendous outing at the 2020 World Championships on home ice in Kearns, Utah, outside Salt Lake City, which magnified her disappointment. Not only did Bowe fail to make the podium for the first time in any event since 2012, she placed eighth in the 1000m and wasn’t even the top American.
Bowe rebounded with third place in a 1000m race at the World Sprint Championships, finishing sixth in the overall standings, and a silver in the 1000m at the final World Cup in Heerenveen.
“It was a great year overshadowed by great disappointments those two weekends, in particular the one weekend with the world championships,” Bowe said, “so it definitely relit my fire. I’m more determined than ever.”
When Bowe opens her 2021 season in the first World Cup on Friday at the Thialf venue, it will be her first international competition in nearly a year. The second World Cup will be Jan. 29-31, then athletes will remain in Heerenveen for the World Championships Feb. 11-14.
“I’ve been itching to race all season,” said Bowe, who will turn 33 on Feb. 24. “Without having the excitement of racing, training can become pretty monotonous, and tough at times – not to sugarcoat it – so to get word of the hub happening, it’s really, really exciting. I’m super grateful to have the opportunity to race this season.
“My physical fitness feels awesome. I feel mentally and physically strong and I feel confident.”
The national championships, scheduled for December, were cancelled due to the pandemic, so Bowe was one of the athletes who qualified for the trip based on their season’s best times.
Rising star Kimi Goetz, one of her top rivals, decided not to travel due to concerns about the coronavirus, but Bowe said she had no hesitation.
“The beauty of being part of US Speedskating is we get to choose what’s best for us,” said Bowe, who has 26 World Cup victories and nine medals at the single distance world championships. “There are six of us that have accepted our role on the team. For those that haven’t, I totally respect their decision and what’s best for them, and obviously they will be missed on the road.”
Bowe said that in the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, it was important for her to feel the nerves and anxiety that come with international competition.
“Obviously I want to do well and be competitive and win when I go over to Europe,” she said, “but just working through those emotions are just as valuable as a medal at this point going into an Olympic year.”
But Bowe knows her 11th World Cup season will be very different in more ways than just the abbreviated schedule. For starters, there will be no spectators in the Thialf arena.
“Normally it’s the best atmosphere in the entire world to skate in, the speed skating mecca of the world,” said Bowe.
Athletes will be restricted to their hotels and must ask for permission to go out for a walk, run or bike ride. They will also undergo regular testing.
“There will be some form of isolation,” Bowe said, “but we know what we signed up for.”
She said she has tried not to dwell on what happened a year ago.
During “an unbelievable season,” Bowe broke the U.S. women’s record for consecutive victories that she shared with Bonnie Blair and Heather Bergsma. She averaged better than a half-second margin of victory during the streak while setting track records in six of her seven wins. An eighth straight win would have tied German speed skater Anni Friesinger-Postma’s all-time mark from the 2007-08 season.
“And kind of the world comes crashing down there in January and February,” said Bowe. “Each year our goal is to be a world champion, and for one reason or another, it didn’t work out for me. The stars were not aligned for me.”
At the time, she called the experience “a nightmare.”
Following her “bittersweet” silver medal to cap the season, Bowe went home to Florida for a couple of months to isolate during the pandemic with her mother and sister. For exercise, Bowe relied on inline skating, where she got her competitive start before switching to ice.
“I could not be more grateful for the time that we got together, all the TikToks we made, and just getting to have fun with each other,” Bowe said.
Upon her return to Utah, she was determined to “push the distance side of things.” Bowe had started last season with a podium finish in the 1500m and won two bronze medals in the event, but was dissatisfied with her performance.
“I just wasn’t feeling strong in that race,” Bowe said, “so this summer and fall and into the winter, I’m really, really focused on getting back to that competitive edge in the 1500m.”
During the time trials held in Utah this season, Bowe posted her two fastest 1500m times outside of World Cups, clocking 1:52.25 on Jan. 2 and 1:52.79 in November.
“With no atmosphere and subpar ice conditions, I would say I am thrilled with that,” said Bowe, whose American record is 1:50.32. Her best 1000m time this season is 1:13.66 in October.
Next season she’ll return to concentrating on the speed aspect of her sport in hopes of securing the individual Olympic medal which has eluded her.
“Sochi was probably the biggest disappointment of my sporting career, going in as a medal contender and falling far short,” said Bowe, who placed eighth in the 1000m at the 2014 Games.
A severe concussion disrupted her training for the PyeongChang Olympics where Bowe just missed the podium in the 1000m with a fourth-place result and was fifth in the 1500m.
“That wasn’t a disappointing moment for me, although it was upsetting,” said Bowe, who clinched the team pursuit bronze medal with Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens. “Going into PyeongChang was a much different situation coming off my head injury and a year of rehabilitation, so I was just grateful to be able to compete in the Olympics at that point.”
She’s not sure if she’ll retire after the Beijing Games, but will go through an evaluation process.
“I’ll be 33, going on 34 at the Olympics, so I am getting up there in age – and that’s something to consider,” Bowe said. “The world is definitely not slowing down. There’s always someone bigger, faster, stronger coming up under you. That’s just the natural progression of everything in life.
“But if things do go well there, on one hand you could say it was a great career and end it there. On the other hand, as an athlete you’re always hungry for more and you kind of thrive off that victorious feeling. Is it easy to stop once you’re winning? I would say, ‘Absolutely not.’”