When Kristen Santos went to a practice about eight years ago with a swollen face due to allergies, a coach started calling her “Puff Daddy” as a joke. Santos never did figure out what she was allergic to or have any more swelling. But she’s had the nickname “Puff” ever since.
“I wish it was a cooler story,” Santos said.
Now “Puff” is a breath of fresh air for U.S. short track speed skating.
This has been a breakout season for the 27-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, who is favored to help the American women capture their first Olympic medal in short track since 2010.
Santos will compete in the 500, 1000 and 1500 at the U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials this weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City. She is the American record holder in the 500 and 1000. Santos is also expected to be part of the 3000m relay which qualified for the Games for the first time in 12 years and set a new American record, and could also enter in one or more rounds of the inaugural 2000m mixed relay.
“My main goal this World Cup season was just to qualify Olympic spots for Team USA,” Santos said, “but obviously I wanted to do even better than that.”
She sure did. Santos came into the 2021-22 campaign with only one individual World Cup medal, a 1000m bronze in November 2019 before the pandemic cut the season short.
Then this fall at the opening World Cup in Beijing, Santos won bronze medals in the 1000 and 1500 at the venue that will be used for the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.
A week later, she captured her first World Cup gold by taking the 1000m in Nagoya, Japan. Santos defeated two Dutch skaters, Suzanne Schulting, the 2018 gold medalist and reigning world champ in the 1000, and Xandra Velzeboer.
The gold was the first by any U.S. short track speed skater in four years, the first individual U.S. win in seven years and the first by an American woman since Lana Gehring won the 1000 and 1500 in February 2012.
Although Santos did not reach the podium in the final two World Cups, she was still in the mix.
“The first two, I was able to be a little bit more unexpected to people,” Santos said, “and they didn’t know exactly what I could do or what I would do. And then in the next set of World Cups, they kind of knew if I was coming around it was time to block someone.”
For Santos, making her first Olympic team is overdue. She became a casualty of the rough-and-tumble world of short track when her hand and wrist were accidentally run over by another skater during a World Cup practice session a month before the 2018 Olympic Trials.
Santos defied expectations by skating at the trials – and skating well – fresh out of surgery to repair the sliced tendons. Wearing a cast that covered her entire hand and lower arm and relying on her boyfriend (now fiancé) Travis Griswold to dress her and tie her skates, Santos placed fourth. She missed the Olympic team by one spot.
“I think that honestly just made me more motivated for this Olympic cycle and also kind of made me realize the mindset that I need to be in to perform right,” said Santos, who graduated from the University of Utah last spring with a degree in kinesiology and a minor in nutrition. “Since I originally thought I wouldn’t even be able to skate, I was able to go into it with a nothing-to-lose-mindset.”
She also recognized that she didn’t just want to go to the Olympics, she wanted to be a medal contender.
Santos was making great strides in 2019 when she had another setback, herniating a disc. Back surgery would have ended her season, so Santos decided to see what would happen if she waited. Although Santos wasn’t allowed to skate – she couldn’t bend forward or get into skating position – she could sit upright on a stationary bike and pedal while her teammates practiced.
Santos avoided surgery and when she finally returned to the ice, she earned an American record and World Cup medal thanks to “doing more cardio than I ever have in my entire life.”
When the pandemic brought competition to a halt, Santos put the extra practice time to good use.
“I get really nervous when it comes to racing,” she said. “I feel like I was able to thrive in the time of no racing and could really try new things and not be afraid to do something even if I fail. I saw a lot of big improvements.”
However, despite feeling strong going into the 2021 World Championships, Santos was rusty when she returned to a race environment.
“I ended up getting a lot of disqualifications and did not have the results that I had hoped for,” said Santos, who finished fourth in the 500.
This season she has focused on skating “clean and smart.” Throughout the summer, Santos would throw a pass in the middle of a tempo practice just to get more comfortable with the move. In the heat of the race, she knows instinct takes over.
“At the end everybody is right there fighting each other,” Santos said, “so definitely positioning early is a lot more important.
The unpredictability of her sport is both exciting and frustrating to the athlete who was the only girl on her hockey team before shifting to short track at age 9.
“Sometimes in short track the fastest person doesn’t always win, right?” Santos said.
And sometimes the fastest person doesn’t even finish the race. “You could do absolutely nothing wrong and somebody else’s mistake – whether that be a bad pass or they literally just slip – and you happen to be caught up in it,” Santos said. “That can honestly suck.”
In earlier rounds, a skater who gets wiped out by a competitor can in some cases be advanced into the next round. There is no second chance in the final, though.
“They’re not going to give you the gold medal,” Santos said, “because somebody took you out in the last lap.”
Or in practice. Her hand injury before the 2018 Trials came when she “just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” When another skater wiped out and collided with her, Santos went headfirst into the pads and medical staff immediately began stabilizing her for a neck injury. When one of Santos’ teammates pointed to her hand, that’s when she saw it was “floppy and bleeding everywhere,” Santos said. “My trainer was like, ‘I know! But I have to focus on her neck, that’s more important.’”
Her neck was sore but ended up being fine, while the damage to her hand left her with a scar and a bump that she said “will probably always be there. But I have full range of motion, and I honestly forget it’s even there now.”
After that season, a rule went into effect that skaters had to wear cut-resistant gloves. “I like to think I’m the model for that rule,” Santos said.
And four years later, she’d like to model some Olympic hardware.
The last American woman to win a gold medal in short track was Cathy Turner in 1992 – the first year the sport joined the Olympic program – and 1994 in the 500.
Santos feels the pressure of being the top U.S. threat sometimes, and she said with a laugh, “I’m not the best under pressure.”
But she’s working on it. She frames it as being a good thing to be nervous because “that means I can actually do something in that race.”
As part of the tight-knit short track community, Santos has gotten advice and encouragement from athletes such as Katherine Reutter Adamek, who won the silver in the 1000 and was part of the bronze medal-winning relay in Vancouver; Apolo Ohno, the Olympic champion and eight-time medalist; and three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski. (Adamek will serve as analyst during the NBC, NBCSN and Peacock coverage.)
Santos said something Celski told her in 2017 really resonated with her.
“He had actually pulled me aside and was like, ‘You can do more than you are,’” Santos said. “And for me, that was when this switch kind of hit.”
Celski was saying out loud something she had been thinking – that she could push herself harder. “You can tell yourself something every day,” Santos said, “but I feel like it’s easier to listen to other people and really believe them versus yourself.”
Now she’s making everyone a believer.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!