With no spectators allowed at the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials, Ethan Cepuran missed hearing the cheers of family and friends as he made his first Olympic team.
But a voice he knew well accompanied him around the oval.
Cepuran’s older brother Gordon was the race announcer. His play-by-play boomed throughout the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee as Ethan came from behind to win the longest race of the trials, the 5000m, by the tip of his blade.
“It’s always awesome to have a familiar voice,” Ethan said. “That was really cool to still be able to have a family member in the building.”
Cepuran, 21, got his left leg across the finish line of the 5000 barely ahead of the right leg of training partner Casey Dawson, who is about three months younger.
The reigning U.S. champ, Cepuran, clocked 6 minutes, 16.54 seconds over the 12 ½-lap race while Dawson came in at 6:16.58 in the photo finish.
“This was just a bloodbath to the end,” said Cepuran, who was behind by 1.5 seconds with four laps to go and still trailed at the bell. He finished half a second shy of the track record of 6:16.23 set by Olympic medalist Chad Hedrick in 2008.
Cepuran clinched the first Olympic berth for Team USA at the trials, which began five days of competition Wednesday.
Dawson must now wait to see how the rest of the trials play out to determine if he will compete at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in the 5000. Team USA has earned 10 individual men’s Olympic berths, but can only send seven men; some athletes are expected to double, which would clear room for Dawson on the team in the individual event.
Emery Lehman, 25, in a bid to make his third straight Olympic team, was third with a time of 6:16.71.
But Dawson and Lehman have another route to Beijing. Team pursuit could be the best chance for them – as well as Cepuran – to win a medal at the Games. The trio, as well as two-time Olympian Joey Mantia, has already earned medal contender status from US Speedskating in the team pursuit. The team composed of Mantia, Lehman and Dawson set the world record last month.
“We train with each other every day, we race each other,” Cepuran said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them; they’re the best teammates in the world. It’s always an honor to be on the line and skate with them.”
Mia Manganello Kilburg, a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist in team pursuit, won the longest women’s race, the 3000m, with a time of 4:07.61. She was paired with Dessie Weigel, who clocked 4:15.35 to place second. Kilburg, 22, will be the first reserve skater to make the Olympic field if an athlete from another country gives up the spot.
Both Kilburg and Weigel are contenders in women’s mass start later this week.
Kilburg said she was physically prepared for the race, “but the head is a whole other thing. I feel like I conquered a beast that I’ve been fighting for a while, so it’s very exciting.”
Team USA will qualify a maximum of five women for the Olympics.
Kilburg said not having a crowd – a decision made by US Speedskating due to the rise in Covid-19 cases – turned out to be to her advantage.
“I think it kind of helped for me not have the outside noise, to really be able to focus on what I needed to focus on, what was in my mind, hearing my coach on the backstretch,” said Kilburg, who tends to get nervous on race day.
She added that wearing masks and being apart from family and friends would be good preparation for the Olympic bubble.
“This is what we have to deal with,” Kilburg said. “We either stress about it or refocus to get the job done.”
The men’s 5000 had been looking all season like it would be a three-man battle.
Lehman, skating in the pair before Cepuran and Dawson went head to head, “threw down an absolutely amazing race,” said Cepuran. “He laid the hammer down.”
But the Glen Ellyn, Illinois, native also knew that if he defeated Dawson, he had a good chance of going to Beijing. “I knew we were close to Emery,” he said, “and If I could keep Casey in my sights, I can dig deep those last few laps. At least one spot’s guaranteed, possibly two.”
Dawson, however, held the lead nearly the entire race. With 1600 meters left, Cepuran not only trailed by 1.5 seconds, he was also behind Lehman’s pace. Cepuran was still 1.20 behind Dawson with two laps to go, although he had moved into second overall. With one lap left, Dawson had a lead of .63 seconds.
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“Between the three of us, those last few laps can be super decisive,” Cepuran said, “ and you’ve just got to lay it all out there until the end.”
Coming around the final curve, Cepuran had momentum. He was on the inside and flew down the straightaway to get ready for “the hawk,” the move in which a skater flings a skate forward at the line.
“It takes a little bit of timing,” Cepuran said.
And the crowd – what little there was – went wild.
“I had tons of family coming up to watch, and it’s sad they weren’t able to make it,” Cepuran said. “But it was the right thing to do. The biggest thing was make it to Beijing. There were plenty of racers cheering their hearts out. They were just as invested as we are.”
Even though the Pettit was nearly empty, Cepuran said there’s no place he would rather skate. “This is my home rink,” he said. “I’ve been coming to the Pettit even before I was born. My mom was pregnant with me when my older brothers skated.”
His oldest brother, Eric, is a former junior national team member and coach. “He’s my role model,” Ethan said of his brother, who coached him before the youngest Cepuran moved to Salt Lake City.
Gordon, who is about eight years older than Ethan, also skated.
“I just wanted to go to the rink, follow Eric and Gordon, and the easiest way to keep track of me was just put me in skates,” said Cepuran. “They put me in the center with a paint bucket to push it around. When you’re 2 years old, you can barely walk. It’s just how you survive.”
He said he doesn’t remember how long he pushed that bucket. “I definitely wasn’t all that good at first,” Cepuran said. “But it was years of having fun and smiling. Skating was always a way to be around my brother, be just like him and just have fun.”
Cepuran, who was 15th in the 5000 and 22nd in the 1500 at the 2021 World Championships, said his earliest Olympic memory was watching the 10,000 at the 2002 Olympics when he was only about 18 months old. He was better able to appreciate Shani Davis winning the gold in the 1000 at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Cepuran calls the 5000, which usually has older Olympic medal contenders, “a race of experience.”
“Every 5K I’ve done in the past two years has elevated my ability to skate,” he said. “I just gotta believe in myself. If it doesn’t hurt, I’m not doing it right.”
However, Cepuran said the folks back home – who contacted him before his race – weren’t dwelling on the outcome of the race.
“As long as I’m happy doing what I do,” he said, “they just care if I’m the kid that’s still smiling like I was when I was out with the bucket.”
Karen Rosen, who has covered every summer and winter Olympics since 1992, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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