SOCHI, RUSSIA – Maria Lamb arrived at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials confident that her spot on the team was pretty secure.
She had trained well, felt strong, no real worries. The St. Paul native even figured that, if the ice was in perfect condition, she had a shot to challenge the American record in the 5,000 meters.
Life was good.
“I was like, ‘OK, I just want this to be a good warm-up for Sochi, get some really good races in, set some fast times, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Lamb said. “Then all of a sudden, things transpire.”
Lamb woke up one morning early that week feeling “off.” The next day, her throat was swollen, making it hard for her to breathe normally. She skated a few easy warm-up laps and was exhausted. Her coach sent her home for two days to recover.
Lamb felt healthy enough to compete in the 3,000 meters when she returned, but she wheezed throughout the race and finished fifth. Two days later, she woke up with a severe migraine that left her debilitated.
“I was pretty much throwing up uncontrollably, nonstop,” she said.
She spent five hours in the emergency room, diagnosed with croup and migraines. Suddenly, her place on the Olympic team didn’t feel like a given anymore.
“It was fairly difficult to not freak out,” she said. “There’s a really big part of you that wants to just quit and be like, ‘OK, I can’t do this. I’m sick and now I’m in the ER. I’d rather just go home and curl up in a ball and forget about everything.’ But at the same time, as long as I try, I can live with it. If I try and fail, at least I tried.”
Lamb competed in the 1,500 the next day and came within one second of making the Olympic team in that event.
“I really surprised myself,” she said.
She raced in the 5,000 meters the following day and won by seven seconds, securing her spot on the Olympic team. Only the winner of that race made the team.
Lamb, 28, is scheduled to compete Wednesday (7:30 a.m. Central time) in one of the final events for a U.S. team that has had a dismal showing in these Games.
This is Lamb’s third Olympic Games. At Torino in 2006, she finished 24th in the 1,500 meters and fifth in team pursuit. She finished 15th in the 5,000 in Vancouver in 2010.
“There’s nothing ever routine about the Olympics,” Lamb said. “Even though you’ve been there, you can never really know what to expect because it’s the Olympics and it’s run very differently. Every experience is just unique in its own way.”
Lamb’s family lived in Shoreview until she was 5 and then crossed the border to River Falls, Wis. She began skating at age 8 and switched to speedskating because figure skating was too slow. She spent many cold winter days training at the John Rose Oval in Roseville.
“I was a super-tough little kid,” she said. “It would be minus-20 outside and I would refuse to come in and warm up. I was like, ‘No, I want 10 extra minutes to skate.’ I never came in. I guess it’s been a love affair for a long time.”
Lamb grew up on a hobby farm. Her family raised sheep, goats and chickens. Lamb and her three younger siblings did chores for an hour every morning before school and another 30 minutes every evening.
“It was a lot of hard work,” she said.
That work ethic has helped her build a decorated speedskating career. She’s won the U.S. All-Around championship twice and holds junior records in the 3,000 and 1,500 meters. Now, she’s competing in her third Olympic Games.
“I’ve always felt if you can keep your head screwed on straight, the Olympics is probably actually the easiest place to win the medal because there’s a larger portion of people who mentally won’t be able to hold it together,” she said. “And at this level of sport, the mental aspect is probably one of the biggest things separating us.”