Renee Hildebrand has built an empire of skating champions from her base in Ocala
A curious world clamors for answers, turning its inquisitive gaze toward a small southern town suddenly thrust into the limelight of Winter Olympics folklore and glory. How can it be that a town where one might find the same number of ice skates as one would catcher’s mitts in Drammen, Norway, churn out speed skaters not just of elite status but worthy to stand on the podium of the world’s grandest stage?
A Winter Olympics tale with its origins in Ocala, Florida, one may think to be of the sort parallel to the “Eddie the Eagle’’ spectacle or the Jamaican bobsled fiasco; in short, a narrative of the silly underdog that is nothing more than a jester to distract from the serious competition. But no one is laughing, and no one is simply standing with folded arms – they are asking questions. Is there something in the water supply of Marion County? Is the mineral-rich soil so obliging to equine strength and stamina also beneficial to hominine speed and agility? Does some covert rink and military program exist to forge ruthless skating automatons?
The questions arise from a simple puzzling fact: No city in North America produced more medal winning speed skaters at the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing, and only Ottawa, Canada can boast of a greater collection of total medals. The notion of champion ice speed skaters born and raised in Ocala seems as preposterous as Amish hip hop singers or comedians from North Korea.
The names Erin Jackson, Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia are forever etched in the pantheon of Ocala sports icons, having brought home a gold and two bronze medals, respectively, from Beijing.
Another name that should be on that list, and the likely answer to all the former questions, is that of Renee Hildebrand. An inline skating “whisperer” of sorts, Hildebrand has forged an international reputation for producing world champion inline speed skaters, many who have made the successful transition to the ice. A skating instructor in Ocala since 1991, Hildebrand coaches out of the Skate-A-Way South rink and trains racers at Brick City Park (that is, when she is not in Holland or other exotic destinations grooming future champions there).
“I know I’m the common denominator,” says Hildebrand, who trained all three Olympians as inline skaters from their youths to their transition to ice. She also coached Belgium’s Bart Swings, who won the gold medal in the men’s mass start in Beijing.
Inquiring minds want to know: Is it a fluke, or is there something in the secret sauce Hildebrand delivers to her athletes?
“I just work a lot on technique,” said Hildebrand, who earned a gruff reputation as “Nasty Nay” during her younger days as a competitive roller derby skater. “A lot of coaches work on technique at the beginning of the season, then they go on to speed training and they’re done.
“A lot of coaches get bored with (technique training) and they like to watch their kids race. There’s probably a certain amount of coaches who aren’t quite sure how to correct technique. It’s easier to just blow the whistle and tell them to go fast and turn left.”
Hildebrand’s unique exhaustion of technique is just one of the ingredients in her world championship recipe. First, she must spot the talent deemed worthy of development and, second, she must convince the athlete that lofty dreams are within reach. And when it comes to talent, it’s as much about desire and work ethic as anything else.
In Jackson, Bowe and Mantia, Hildebrand uncovered a treasure trove of passion and assiduous work habits that grabbed her attention and convinced her all three would accomplish great things at the highest level. In these three athletes were three different personalities in terms of their approaches to the sport, and Hildebrand coached each to their unique situations. Bowe was a multi-sport athlete who spent a lot of time away from skating but stayed incredibly fit. Jackson was a bit of a study hound who put schoolwork ahead of track work early in her career. Mantia was a “gym rat” of the track who seemingly couldn’t breathe if wheels weren’t attached to his feet.
“Joey just always gave 100 percent,” Hildebrand said. “He would do drills, then he would come back out on the floor and do the next group’s drills. He just loves to train; he gets into it – it’s fun for him.”
A passionate skater with a strong work ethic goes a long way but will not take the athlete to the highest level without the necessary confidence, and that’s where Hildebrand hones in as much as anything. Her Belgian students were fast and dedicated, but possessed a European humility that belied their potential.
At a recent clinic in Holland, Swings and Olympic teammate Sandrine Tas dropped by to see their former instructor and speak to the starry-eyed students there. What they told the kids was Hildebrand’s instilling of confidence in them both was key to their success, that no one before Hildebrand had ever told them they could be world champions.
Aden Sailor, a 24-year-old inliner from Tallahassee who is training under Hildebrand, is experiencing the same thing.
“Once she told me she saw me being a world champion, that gave me the motivation to get better,” said Sailor, who says since starting his training two years ago with Hildebrand he “has gotten better and a lot faster.” In 2021, Sailor made the U.S. World Team and is realistically eyeing a gold medal in the next World Championships. After that, following Mantia’s lead, transitioning to ice could be in the offing.
“I don’t want to (transition to ice) before I become a champion on inline skates,” said Sailor, echoing one of Hildebrand’s mantras and yet another ingredient for developing high-level racers.
Hildebrand does not simply train her skaters and send them off to meets; she puts them up against strong international competition as often as possible so they will be comfortable when it matters most.
“I think the one thing I did different with my skaters was I exposed them to international races early in their careers,” Hildebrand said. “Before (Jackson, Bowe and Mantia) were 12, we went to international races in Colombia and France. I think exposing them to that was a huge part of their success in that before they became world team members they had already been to international races, whereas a lot of kids their first meet ever internationally is the world championships and that’s not where you’re supposed to be getting your experience.”
Hildebrand’s journey from nondescript instructor to racing guru did not happen overnight and only recently is she getting the well-deserved attention beyond her sport.
In 2002, Mantia and Bowe both captured their first world championships and by 2005 it was clear that Hildebrand’s students and clubs were the dominant force in the nation. Hildebrand’s presence around the victorious skaters would not go unnoticed – soon, other coaches and skaters from around the world were approaching her about her services.
“When your kids are winning, everybody wants to go find the coach that’s making them that fast,” Hildebrand said.
What ensued were several German athletes staying in the U.S. as exchange students for a year in order to train with Hildebrand. Others from Europe would come for weeks at a time during Christmas, sometimes with up to seven countries represented.
“So, it was basically international racing here at home.”
She has produced myriad world champions in the inline world, and the formula seems to pay dividends on the ice as well, evidenced by two golds and two bronze medals by her former inline students at the recent Olympic Games. And that success begets more success.
Behind the three Ocala Olympians is another generation waiting to take their place in the future. Among them Sailor and 19-year-old James Sadler, also of Tallahassee.
“When my dad got a house in Brooksville, I was pretty close to here,” Sadler said. “When somebody with her status is living that close, it’s not smart if you don’t take advantage of it.”
Sadler went through a period during the recent COVID pandemic when he lost his passion for the sport, but it’s been re-ignited thanks to Hildebrand.
“I was not enjoying (inline racing) and I was going to give it up,” he said. “She helped me get that desire back. She helped me remember why I got into the sport in the first place and brought back all those positive memories.”
Under Hildebrand’s wing are young skaters who look up to Mantia, Bowe and Jackson as racing idols to be emulated. That’s what makes training under the person who nurtured the careers of Olympians so desirable.
“It motivates me to think that one day I could be there (at the Olympics),” said Brady Ankney, a 13-year-old whose strong work ethic has led Hildebrand to refer to him as her ‘mini Joey.’ “I watched them, wishing that could be me someday.”
Kash Wisco, 14, agrees: “At some point, I hope to get where Erin, Brittany and Joey are. I think Renee can help get me there.”
Ankney has already won at Outdoor Nationals and set records in all six races he has won, and Wisco medalled at Indoor Nationals in 2021. With other promising young skaters like Kamryn Kerkela and Kynley Patterson training under Hildebrand’s watch, it’s likely Ocala has not seen the last of its Olympic hopefuls.
“If they want it, they can get it if they have that ability to push themselves out of their comfort zone,” says Hildebrand, both excited with the talent she sees coming through the ranks but also wary of the culture surrounding kids today. “You’re finding fewer and fewer kids that can do that nowadays. There’s a huge difference between coaching now and coaching when Brittany and Joey started back in the late ‘90s. To get them to actually show up for something three days a week, even, is hard.
“Now, when I find one that’s disciplined like that, I hold on tight.”
And when Renee Hildebrand selects you out of the herd, you had better take advantage, as it could take you to a place no one thought an Ocalan might end up: standing on a podium with a medal around your neck as the national anthem plays.
The formula for getting there is no secret: hard work, dedication, and a laser focus on long-term goals… and doing everything your coach tells you along the way, especially if that coach’s name is Renee Hildebrand.