Skating Through Life

By Brad Rogers

For Joey Mantia, a lifetime on skates has been ‘magical’

Joey MantiaJoey Mantia was 7 when he first started hanging out at the Skate-A-Way South skating rink off Silver Springs Boulevard in Ocala. He had tried baseball, gymnastics and karate, none of which worked out. So, he turned to roller skating. It was fun and allowed the youngster to play in air conditioning, out of the Florida heat.

As he skated around the roller rink day after day, he got faster and faster. That speed quickly caught the eye of rink owner and renowned inline skating coach Renee Hildebrand.

Within a year, Mantia was skating on Hildebrand’s competitive inline skating team and winning medals, including a national championship in his first year. Yes, at age 8. He would evolve into a self-described “rink rat” and over the next dozen years go on to win an astounding 28 world championships and set six world records.

It was a remarkable career that made Mantia one of the greatest, if not the greatest, inline skater ever. How great? He won the American Speed Skater of the Year award three years in a row, in 2005, 2006 and 2007. And in his last year as a Junior, Mantia competed in 12 events at the World Championships, winning 10 gold medals and two silvers.

But he wanted more.

In search of gold

So, the world’s premier inline skater decided he wanted to try what other top inline skaters had — switch to ice. For one reason: the chance to win an Olympic medal. He packed up and left Ocala for Salt Lake City, Utah, where the national speedskating team trains.

After 12 years of training with the national team and taking part in three Olympic Games (2014, 2018 and this year)  Mantia finally won his Olympic medal, a bronze in the team pursuit at the Beijing Games two months ago.

It was what may be the beginning of the end of a long and certainly unexpected journey for the 36-year-old.

And what a journey it’s been.

“I had no idea in high school that this was going to be my life and where it was going to take me,” the Vanguard High School honor grad said. “It’s not like as a kid I said I wanted to be an Olympian. It just sort of happened for me. It made some really magical things happen.”

Of course, ice skating isn’t inline skating. And Mantia’s introduction to ice skating went, well, not great.

“Think Bambi on ice, but with bigger thighs,” is how he once described it. “To be so good on wheels and so bad on blades. It was a long struggle to keep going and not turn back to inline skating.”

But he learned and excelled, winning world titles and setting records along the way. In fact, last month he won the International Skating Union World Cup championship in the 1500 meters. (Incidentally, Ocala’s other two Olympic speed skaters, Brittany Bowe and Erin Jackson, also won World Cup titles this year in the 1000 meters and 500 meters, respectively.)

Yet, for all his success, one thing has eluded Mantia — an Olympic gold medal. It eats at him.

“It sucks,” he said. “I really wanted a gold medal. It just sucks that I couldn’t give it my all.” During the Beijing Games he suffered from “back issues,” which hindered his performance, he said.

Despite his disappointment over not winning gold, he has gained some perspective since the Olympics and now says he’s “ecstatic” to be an Olympic medalist, even if it’s a bronze.

“It’s one of those things that, when it happens, you say that’s not what I wanted,” he said. “But once you get the medal in your hand, it becomes real. It’s something physical. It resonates. It’s the journey.

“If I could give anybody advice, I would say you have to love what you’re doing, not just chasing a gold medal.”

Nevertheless, Mantia knows he has been blessed to be so physically gifted and to have traveled the world doing something at which he excels.

“I’ve never had a real job, and I’m doing OK,” he said. “Not bad, huh?”

The ‘Ocala crew’

One of the biggest storylines of the recent Olympics was the irony that Mantia, Bowe and Jackson – all native Ocalans – were standouts for the U.S. speedskating team but came from a town with no ice skating rink. When Bowe gave up her spot in the Olympic 500 meters to Jackson, who slipped during her time trial, the spotlight on Ocala as a speedskating mecca became white hot. When all three medaled for the U.S., it confirmed what people had been saying: that Ocala is the new epicenter of ice speedskating in the United States.

“Ocala is definitely the speedskating capital of the United States,” Mantia said.

He said the Ocala skaters, which he called “the Ocala crew,” is genuinely close, all having grown under Hildebrand’s tutelage.

“We’re like a miniature family out here,” Mantia said from his Salt Lake City home, which he is in the process of renovating himself. “Being part of the Ocala crew is really an honor.”

Mantia gives all the credit to Hildebrand. It’s easy to see his logic. Each of the Ocala crew come from completely different backgrounds and have different skill sets. Yet, they all ended up at the Olympics, and each won a medal. The common denominator? Renee Hildebrand.

“I always give Renee all the credit for our success,” he said. “Apart from her coaching ability, which is phenomenal, she was a physical therapist, she was always ahead on nutrition. She was always thirsting for knowledge.”

He said each of the Ocala medalists has emerged differently from their experience. Jackson, he said, is “truly gifted” and “is best for the exposure of the sport.” Bowe has emerged as an elite skater and a leader on the U.S. team. And Mantia is the elder statesman of the U.S. team. This year, at 35, he became the oldest man to ever win a World Cup race.

For Hildebrand, who still stays in regular contact with her three proteges, it is rewarding to see them achieve such success. So, who’s the best?

“They’re all such great human beings, it’s impossible to pick one,” she said. “It’s like asking who’s your favorite child.”

And what is it that made these three Ocalans who are so different successful?

“Some say it’s the Nay factor,” said Hildebrand, who in her roller derby days was known as Nasty Nay. “They call me Nay. They say I make them want to skate harder. When I believe in them, it helps them believe in themselves. And, of course, there is a history now.”

“Once you get the medal in your hand, it becomes real. It’s something physical. It resonates. It’s the journey."

Joey Mantia

What’s next?

Mantia will be 40 when the next Olympics roll around and he is not sure he can make it to a fourth games.

“At the age of 36, the game is ‘can you stay healthy?’ It’s hard,” he said.

He said he expects to compete for at least two more years, and then he is uncertain what he will do.

“It’s not the end of the road yet, but I know I’m one bad day away from it being over,” Mantia said. “Part of what is keeping me going is I don’t know what I want to do next. It’s kind of weird.”

One idea is to return to inline skating as a coach holding clinics around the world.

“My heart is really with inline skating,” he said. “It’s weird, but I never really fell in love with the ice. With inline, I loved every aspect of it. I used to get up at 2 in the morning sometimes and just skate around Ocala because I loved it so much.

“I wish inline skating was an Olympic sport (which Hildebrand once lobbied for) because my life would be so different,” he added.

In the meantime, Mantia has plenty of hobbies and interests.

He owned a coffee shop on the University of Utah campus until the pandemic tore into his business. He’s thinking of reopening it.

He taught himself to play the piano by watching YouTube videos, but concedes, “I don’t read music, but I know my way around the piano pretty well.”

He loves to ride his motorcycle and go bicycling and is known to take frequent 100-mile training rides.

He is known for his brutal training workouts — his mantra is “Every day is LEG day.” During the Olympics, Yahoo Sports published an article with the headline, “Well, I Found the Most Humongous Thighs Competing at The Beijing Olympics, And They Belong to Speed Skater Joey Mantia.”

He has done numerous YouTube videos of his leg workouts – doing the filming, audio and editing himself.

He is a bachelor but has a girlfriend — fellow Beijing bronze medalist Hanne Desmet, a Belgian speedskater.

With all that, Mantia acknowledges his is a pretty grand life.

His friend and agent Peter Quinn, a former speedskater himself, says Mantia has nothing left to prove to the sport or himself.

“Joey is one of the best all-around skaters – inline skating and on ice – the world has ever seen. Ever,” Quinn said. “If Joey Mantia retires, he retires as one of the best in his sport ever. But he didn’t get what he went for, so he is disappointed.”

Maybe. Mantia didn’t get his gold, but he took a journey few do. A journey that was magical.

“Looking back, if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way 10 times over.”

Back to top button