Two months from COVID-19 fight, Joey Mantia hopes to see his stock rise at World Championships

ISU World Cup Speed Skating - Heerenveen
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As if Joey Mantia hasn’t faced enough unpredictability this season, the two-time Olympic speed skater decided to add even more volatility to his life.

Mantia has been learning how to trade stocks by watching YouTube videos while holed up in a hotel in Heerenveen, Netherlands. With athletes in the protective bubble having 10 days off between their two World Cups in January and the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships, Mantia decided to study the stock market “on a whim.”

In a couple of day trades to test the waters, he made “six or seven bucks” and has more in play. “I haven’t lost any money yet, so that’s good,” Mantia said.

He’s hoping for good returns on his speed skating investment when competition starts Thursday. But after a bout with COVID-19 in December, Mantia, who turned 35 on Sunday, has no idea how his body will respond.

As the week began, Mantia said he is “feeling great on the ice technically,” but his “body is still a little weird.”

“You never know what’s going to happen on race day,” he added, “so I’m very optimistic still.”

Despite the pandemic, Mantia came into the 2020-21 season with high hopes. Last February, he won his first world championships medal in a time trial event – the bronze in the 1500m – to go along with his two golds in the mass start in 2017 and 2019.

Early races at the Utah Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City went well, and Mantia felt strong and capable. Then he came down with COVID.

“I’m a little bit sad that I didn’t get to see that through, but I can’t control that now,” he said. “I can only focus on what’s ahead.”

Yet Mantia is still dealing with the effects of the virus. In early December, he thought his body aches were the result of hard training. But Mantia had chills, too, then a headache and “slept like garbage.” After that, he said, “I felt like a million bucks. I’m sure my white blood cell count was through the roof.”

That was “a Superman effect,” his immune system reacting to the virus.

Knowing that one of his teammates had tested positive, Mantia took his weekly test. That afternoon, while on the phone with his former coach back home in Ocala, Florida, Mantia noticed that he couldn’t smell a fragrant candle. A few hours later, his trainer called to say he’d tested positive.

“I did two weeks of absolutely nothing, which is pretty detrimental to an athlete regardless of having any kind of virus or not,” Mantia said.

He barely got up from his couch, sleeping 13 hours a night. But Mantia did find time to research myocarditis, knowing he had to be careful when resuming training to avoid long-term damage to his heart.

Once he returned to the ice, Mantia eased in for the first week and a half, then had a week of tough workouts.

“I don’t know if there’s any correlation between COVID and the nervous system,” he said, “but I felt like I was starting to have a hard time controlling my motor functions after a hard effort.”

In race situations, Mantia couldn’t finish with any kind of intensity. “That was kind of an ‘uh-oh’ moment for me,” he said. “But at that point I was already committed to coming to the World Cups and the World Championships, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just figure it out as I go and hopefully every week gets a little bit better.’”

Arriving in Europe, Mantia felt unfit, a rarity for him. In the past, if he hadn’t done well in a race, it was because his technique was off. “It’s a really weird feeling to feel the exact opposite now where I feel like the skating is really, really good, but my body is just failing me,” he said.

In the first World Cup of this abbreviated season, Mantia was seventh in the 1500m and 15th in the mass start. On Instagram, Mantia wrote that he was “trying to keep the smile, even though it’s obnoxious trying to race when feeling like this.”

In the second World Cup, he dropped to 17th in the 1500m but moved up to fourth in the mass start.

Mantia said he was in a perfect position strategically in the 16-lap event. “I skated the race great, but I just had nothing left at the end of the race to make any kind of move,” he said. “That’s normally not like me at all.”

He’s also had to cope with feeling groggy, as if he had concussion-like symptoms, following racing or hard training. “It almost feels hypoglycemic, in a sense that I feel I need some sugar,” he said. “That may or may not be linked to the COVID thing.”

However, even sugar itself has proven bittersweet. When the World Championships organizing committee generously provided a birthday cake for Mantia’s small celebration with teammates, it was decorated with a photo of him with his former roommate’s dog.

“Made me smile, but also pretty sad,” Mantia said. “She was hit by a car and died a couple of days before I came here.”

Another unpredictable event. Luckily for Mantia, he found a refuge in YouTube University. “I think pretty much everything I’ve learned since high school I’ve learned from YouTube,” he said, “renovating my house by myself, learning the piano…”

Mantia has been playing the piano in the hotel lobby some nights, with a repertoire that includes “Piano Man” by Billy Joel and some John Lennon and Evanescence. An athlete or two might stop and listen, but he’s usually just playing for himself or the front desk clerk. “For the most part,” he said, “I’m just playing for my own sanity.”

Mantia had planned to peruse some cooking books in his spare time, then got caught up in the stock market frenzy.

“I’m a pretty big math nerd and I like probability,” he said, noting that he was hooked “once I started learning that you could have a pretty good strategy for making money over the long term if you manage your risk. I think I would probably be losing my mind a little bit if we were stuck in these rooms and all I had to do was think about skating and how unpredictable it is right now for me.”

At least one variable has been removed. Unlike previous world championships, the 1500m and the mass start will not be held on the same day.

“If I was a betting man, I would say the mass start is probably my only hope right now at even looking at the podium,” Mantia said. “I’ll know with about three laps to go if it’s going to be a good day or the bad day.”

He’s aware that the rest of the field knows he’s had COVID-19 and hasn’t been performing the way he normally does, “so they’re a little more aggressive in the race pace,” he said. “That could just be my perception.”

But he allowed that if the skate was on the other foot, “I would do the same thing.”

No matter how it goes at worlds, Mantia will move into preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Because of COVID restrictions, he said the U.S. had not held any mass start training this season, which could also have played a role in his fitness issues. Mantia has resolved to find a way to train for the event next season even if restrictions are still in place “because that’s definitely my best shot at the gold medal at the Olympics,” he said, “followed by the 1500 and team pursuit.”

Mantia, whose top Olympic finish was fourth place in the 1000m in PyeongChang three years ago – his first major result in that event – said he thinks he’s better at mass start than time trials because he’s never really gotten comfortable with starting on the ice.

“I had one of the best starts on the planet when it came to inline skating,” said Mantia, who won 28 world titles on wheels before switching to speed skating, “but I have a very weak start on the ice.

“I feel like most athletes who grew up in the sport have their start kind of dialed in. That’s just never been me. On top of that, I’ve never been great at time trialing by itself. I’m a racer at heart, and the mass start is basically everything that I am.”

After Beijing, Mantia will continue racing mass start events if he’s in a position where he still can win, “which I don’t see a reason why I couldn’t be,” he said.

“I would continue because I do enjoy this life. I think it’s a good alternative to clocking in and having a 9-to 5 job, which is something I’ve never really desired. So if I can do a little day trading and be a speed skater for the rest of my life, I’m going to take that route.

“It’s not a bad one.”

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