SOCHI, Russia – Four years ago at this time, Brittany Bowe was nearing the end of her career as a point guard at Florida Atlantic University. She was a very good player, one of nine women to score 1,000 career points at FAU. She had visions of playing pro basketball overseas after graduation.
But as Bowe sat in front of her TV, watching the speedskating at the Winter Olympics, a child’s ambition began to rise up inside her. She had been a world champion in-line skater as a girl, a force on wheels. Why couldn’t she be out there, too, competing for gold medals on the ice?
Bowe had dreamed of being in the Olympics since she was a little girl, giving dribbling exhibitions at halftime of college hoop games in Ocala. But she wasn’t good enough to play Olympic basketball, and in-line skating wasn’t getting into the Summer Games any time soon.
So why not speedskating?
“Vancouver kind of lit my fire,” Bowe said Thursday afternoon in a U.S. speedskating media conference in Tolstoy Hall at the Main Press Center. “I knew I needed to make the transition onto ice and move to Salt Lake City to try to make this Olympic dream a reality.”
In July of 2010, Jessica Smith, who had switched from in-line to short track speedskating, told Bowe she had an extra room to rent. Bowe didn’t hesitate; she went to Utah and threw herself into speedskating with the same tireless determination that had made her a star in basketball and in-line.
It wasn’t easy at first, by any means.
“The transition was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” said Bowe, whose parents grew up in Victor. Most of her extended family still lives in the Rochester area. “The first day, I could hardly stand up. I got thrown in with the short-track skaters.
“I’ve had a very fast progression,” she continued. “It’s been awesome, but it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and bringing it every day.”
Bowe had a gift for skating, to be sure. She had been an eight-time gold medalist in world in-line skating. She had won 21 junior world titles. Before long, she was holding her own with the best in the world on ice.
Her big breakthrough came in January of 2013, when Bowe won a bronze medal at 1,000 meters in the World Championships. Two months later, she won her first World Cup gold medal in the 1,000 and finished second overall in the World Cup standings to her American teammate, Heather Richardson.
Then, on Nov. 17, Bowe turned in a stunning performance in a World Cup stop in Salt Lake City, setting a world record of 1:12.58 in the 1,000 meters. It was at altitude, on one of the world’s fastest tracks, but she had truly arrived.
“Getting a world record was awesome, one of the most memorable times of my sports career,” Bowe said. “Would I like to win the gold medal here? Absolutely. Does Heather? Absolutely. I think we’ve done everything in our power to put ourselves in position to win.”
There are high hopes for the U.S. speedskating team, which is considered the deepest since the 2002 edition won eight medals at Salt Lake. Shani Davis is the resident superstar, but Richardson and Bowe have inspired new hope for the females, who haven’t had a medal of any kind since ’02.
Richardson is viewed as the top contender among the U.S. women. She won the 2013 world sprint title and finished first in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters at the Olympic Trials. Richardson is No. 1 in the world at 1,000 meters; Bowe is second despite the world record.
She and Richardson aren’t bitter rivals, far from it. They’re great friends and roommates who push and learn from one another. They both grew up in the South, rare for a speedskater – Bowe in Florida, Richardson in North Carolina. Both are converted in-line skaters. Richardson’s parents were competitive roller skaters.
“She has different strengths than I do,” Richardson said. “Coming from basketball, she was in the weight room much more than I am. I said, ‘Oh, she’s got heavy plates on? Maybe I should, too.’ ”
Bowe is the heavier talker, too. Her answers are thoughtful, clear and confident, as if she’s practiced them in front of a mirror. You can see her standing in a basketball huddle in a tight game, arms around her teammates, telling them to relax, assuring them the game is in the bag.
“In basketball, I always loved having the ball in my hands,” Bowe said. “I was the point guard. I liked being in control. On the ice, being an individual sport, I’m in control of everything I do. So I think that’s pretty cool and kind of relevant.”
The U.S. coaches rave about Bowe’s leadership and credit her with much of the team’s strong camaraderie. Once she settled in, Bowe became a powerful voice. It was natural for her.
“I never want to step on other people’s shoes, but it’s kind of in my blood to be a leader,” said Bowe, who turns 26 in two weeks. “Getting on the national team, I kind of led by example. I found myself within the team and found who everybody else was on the team. If you want to be a leader, it’s important to know who you’re working with.
“We have a great team dynamic, and not a lot of words need to be spoken. If you’re upping the ante, everyone is following.”
The stakes are big here. Then again, Bowe has already realized a lifelong dream, getting this far.
“There were no doubts in my mind from Day One,” she said, “that I would make the 2014 Games.”
She hasn’t given up on basketball. Bowe wants to skate through the 2018 Olympics. Then she’ll give pro basketball a shot, “if my body is still intact.” She still loves hoops. She’ll sometimes drag Richardson and a couple of the men’s skaters out to a court in Utah to play.
Richardson is from North Carolina, but she doesn’t have a basketball background. “I don’t want to talk bad about my teammates,” Bowe said with a laugh. “She’s getting better. She’s developing a nice little jump shot, for sure.”