Pete Howell of Falcon Heights knew right away that his young neighbor, Steven Hartman, had "some interesting potential."
He remembers when Hartman, at the age of 5, wiped out on his bike, crashing right into a rock wall.
It would have provoked a meltdown from any other neighborhood kid, Howell said, but Hartman "didn't even seem to feel the pain. He got right back on the bike." That threshold seems to serve Hartman well as a speedskater, Howell said.
Today, Hartman, a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, is preparing for the World Junior Speed Skating Championships. They'll take place in Collalbo, Italy, Feb. 22-24.
Hartman, who trains with the Midway Speedskating Club at the Guidant John Rose OVAL in Roseville, will be a part of the nine-member U.S. junior speedskating team. Last year, he competed in the world championships in Obihiro, Japan.
This time, his goal is to place in the top 10 in the all-round category, which involves a series of races of varying lengths.
It's a level that few people reach, and it's not something that Hartman achieved overnight. "I've been slowly working up to this," he said.
The world junior championships are a steppingstone to the Olympics, with the World Cup circuit falling in between, according to Raymond Larson, a spokesman for the Midway club.
Hartman hopes to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games.
Although the competitions can be nerve-wracking, "I remind myself I'm not being thrown in there unprepared, so I shouldn't be doubting my abilities," he said.
His main challenge at this point is to stay healthy, he added.
Just the beginning
Midway Coach Paul Dyrud used to get nervous when Hartman's timing seemed off before a competition. But he has found that once Hartman gets to the races, "he would kick it into a whole new gear. It was amazing."
It's rare for someone to "consistently take it up to a whole new level when the stage is bigger," Dyrud said. "He's able to channel his nerves and make it a positive thing."
For Hartman, the formula for success is natural ability, a solid work ethic and a positive attitude, Dyrud said.
Stacy Ingraham, director of the University of Minnesota's Human and Sport Performance Lab, which conducts physiology tests for the Midway Club, had high praise for Hartman.
Through a separate program she runs called Training Edge, "I put those guys through brutal workouts in the summer," she said. "Ninety-nine percent of the population could never endure it."
Hartman never missed a practice, she said.
He comes from an athletic family, but his level of commitment speaks to his maturity, she said. "He has a pretty single-minded focus for a teenager. He understands the expectations of what it takes to be great."
In a sport that "you don't read much about, that doesn't get the accolades of other sports," his drive is "coming from the inside," she said.
The thrill of going fast
Skating never gets old for Hartman.
"What you put in is what you get out of it," he said. "If I train my hardest, leave no stone unturned, I'll be able to reach my full potential."
Part of the sport's appeal is simply the feeling of going fast. "It sounds cliché," he said, describing the thrill: "You stand up and can feel the wind against your face. When you slow down, you realize how fast you were going."
It's exhilarating, he said.
He also enjoys socializing with the skaters he trains with year after year, and traveling all over the world.
When he coaches skaters who are just starting out, he tells them, "This is something you can have fun doing, that can open a lot of doors," he said.
Howell, Hartman's neighbor, sees someone who's come a long way from crashing on his bike. Howell intends to see him in the Olympics someday.
"My wife and I have already told him we're going no matter where he is," he said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.