25 Laps with Casey FitzRandolph
At the age of three, Casey FitzRandolph first stepped onto the ice as a munchkin to perform in a “Wizard of Oz on Ice” production. At the age of four, he took up hockey but realized that he didn’t like the amount of time he had to spend in his hockey pads. One day during the winter of 1979-1980 he heard an ad for the Madison area All-City speed skating meet that would be taking place on the Vilas Park Lagoon. He figured since he had tried other ice skating sports, he would try speed skating. FitzRandolph instantly took to the sport and didn’t stop until he reached his goal of becoming an Olympic Champion 22 years later.
FitzRandolph had a myriad of accomplishments throughout his skating career. In 1997 at the World Sprint Championships, he was an overall bronze medalist and a silver medal in the 1000m. That same year he lowered Dan Jansen’s American records in the 500m and 1000m and bettered his own American records many times after. In 2001, FitzRandolph won the overall silver medal at the World Sprint Championships, winning gold in the 500m.
A six-time U.S. National Sprint champion, FitzRandolph established new Olympic Records in the 500m at the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Games. In Nagano, he became the first person to skate the 500m in under 36 seconds at an Olympic Games. Four years later, he set a new Olympic Record of 34.42 seconds at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City…a mark that is still the current Olympic Record. In doing so, he achieved his childhood dream of winning an Olympic gold medal.
FitzRandolph currently resides in Cross Plains, Wisconsin with his wife Jennifer and their children Sawyer (10) and Cassidy (8), who enjoy spending time as a family at their farms and cabin in rural Wisconsin when not playing sports. Casey’s post-skating career involves advising business clients of risk as an Account Executive at M3 Insurance.
We caught up with Casey recently for a few laps…Let’s start off with some background info…Full name?
Casey J. FitzRandolph
Where are you from? Where do you reside now?
I’m originally from Verona Wisc., and presently live in Cross Plains, which about 15 miles from Verona. Madison is the nearest big-little town.
When did you start skating Casey? Retire/Finish? Or do you feel you’ll always be skating/a skater?
I started ice skating about the same time I was learning to walk and began speed skating when I was four years old, just about to turn five. I retired after 2006, at age 31. And I did in fact retire! Outside of a few little skating demos and exhibitions, and a little time on the ice with the Madison Club, I’m done. It's a full process to ween oneself off speed skating, and my exercise-for-fitness routine post skating began like a speed skater (low walks around the neighborhood at night under the cover of darkness), but slowly and inevitably you transition to a normal person’s workouts. That being said, I will always consider myself a speed skater.
So you began your skating career with a club?
Yes, I began with the Madison Speed Skating Club. As fate and timing would have it (I was playing hockey), I didn’t like the sweaty itchy pads you had to put on, and the mob around the puck. I always wanted to spread out, get away from that mob and skate! Around that time, we had heard an ad on the radio for the All City Speedskating Meet at Vilas Park Lagoon, next to the zoo (in Madison). It said to come skate on whatever skates you had, and try the sport of speed skating. I said to my mom, “Mom, I want to try this”. When we arrived, I was put in with the six and seven year olds and beat them. Bob Corby (former skater and coach) noticed me, and came over and said, “you have the next Eric Heiden here”! Whether through his impressive salesmanship or me and my parents’ naivety, we believed him. This was the winter of 1979-1980. Three weeks later, fellow Madisonian Eric Heiden went on to win 5 gold medals at the Games in Lake Placid, NY, and in the mind of a five-year-old it was as simple as “If he can do it, so can I!”. That March Eric came back to the Madison Club’s banquet and signed a ball cap for me, which sealed the deal.
Let’s talk a bit about your skating experience…Why did you start/keep skating?
I think if I’m being honest with myself, I liked the success I was having. Success feels good. But I also liked the feeling of going fast on ice. You could go so much faster (on speed skates) than you could running. Also, I was and remain a bit of a control freak so the option of doing a timed individual sport and controlling my own destiny probably resonated at an early age, even if not a conscious thought at the time.
What do you consider your greatest skating accomplishments?
Well, fulfilling my childhood dream of winning a gold medal in Salt Lake at the 2002 Games. That would be the biggest by far in terms of winning something that was very tangible to me. In the bigger picture of life, I think I’m most proud of my ability to figure out how to win despite not being the biggest, strongest, or quickest guy on the ice. I’m just a really big believer in the power of human potential. I think that even those of us that have decent…or modest…talent can go much further than what we might believe we can. I love the mental side of sport, as there is so much untapped potential there. I talk to anyone who will listen about the mental side of being a champion. Sometimes that means corporations, and more often that means our kids and their peers. Being ‘better’ mentally is a huge passion of mine.
Who were your coaches/mentors in skating?
Eric Heiden was my first role model through his performances in the 1980 games. Lyle Lebombard was the single biggest coaching influence in my skating career. It’s hard to share everyone without leaving someone out, but I’ll say a bit more. I know with certainty that I learned something from every coach I ever had in speedskating. There are plenty of bad coaches across all of sport, but the vast majority of speedskating coaches are passionate about the sport. It’s not convenience that has them involved, so I believe they’re more vested than coaches in many other sports, which is to the benefit of our sport and skaters. We did a fair amount of private coaching as I grew up, and Bob Corby, Lori Goff (Monk), Susan Sandvig and Mary Doctor would hop in the van with us through the years and make the three-hour roundtrip to Milwaukee several nights a week. I was fortunate to be able to have people around me at the time who cared that much. When you find a coach who is willing to do that for you, you really have something special. And that, of course, also stemmed from my folks and what they were willing to do for my sister, Jessi, and I…which is to say, everything.
We were fortunate to be American speed skaters as we didn’t have to look very far for role models! Early on it was Heiden and later Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair. These were role models that were succeeding at the level I aspired to, both on and off the ice…work ethics, good people, etc. I’d like to add that later in my career, I considered Jeremy Wotherspoon (500m long track World Record holder of Canada) a role model, even though he was a bit younger than I was. He and Mike Ireland (also a Canadian sprint speed skating Champion) were willing to have me join them as a third training partner* and, more importantly, willing to share everything and anything to help us succeed as a trio. Something for which I am forever indebted and grateful for. After the 1998 Games and advent of the clap skate, they were on top of the world, and I was chasing, and the U.S. was struggling. They could have easily said, “We’re doing just fine on our own” – but they didn’t, they wanted to be better too, and ultimately three were - in fact - stronger than two. We won a lot of medals, swept the podium in the 500m and 1000m many times. The 2001-2002 season was the highlight of my 27-year career, not just because of fulfilling my childhood dream at the Olympics, but because of our mutual successes and being privy to, and ultimately a part of, the epitome of a team. Jeremy and Mike became not just teammates but best friends, and were two of my three best men at my wedding.
* Note: Casey moved to Calgary in 1999 to train and compete with the best sprinters in the world at that point in time
Do you have a particular place or favorite track/rink to skate?
I felt confident when skating in Calgary, Salt Lake City, The Pettit Center, Hamar, Norway and Nagano, Japan. These stand out to me and always have in terms of my skating (competitions). Probably doesn’t hurt that I like being in all those countries. Another place I liked to be but struggled to skate well was Inzell, Germany. We enjoyed dangling dental floss off the bridges for a fresh meal of trout, however illegitimate it might have been in hindsight. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge what a special place the track in Heerenveen was. Loud, noisy, the building seemed to shake when you skated! You felt like you were big time, a real professional athlete when you skated there. The most difficult environment to compete against the formidable Dutch in, but boy am I thankful for Heerenveen.
Did you have a favorite place or somewhere memorable where you trained?
Well, the frozen lagoon in Madison, which was conveniently located about 100 yards down wind of the zoo’s monkey cages, remains quite memorable. And the old Olympic Ice Rink in Milwaukee and it’s seemingly endless gail force winds which facilitated infinite “candy canes” (200 meters vs full 400 meter laps) when we were young and unable to carry enough speed into the wind down the backstretch to even make it through the second turn. But, again, the time spent in Calgary was unique as well. Great facility, great programs and great people. Jen and I loved being up there, even if medals hadn’t happened or if the future would have been different. The Canadians showed me how to slow down in life, in order to speed up on the ice. What I remember most is the skating community that we had in Calgary – a very tightknit group. In the U.S. it is often difficult to not get caught up in the speed of life and keeping up with the Joneses. I’m as guilty of it as anyone…we are products of our environments in that regard. The mentality and resulting lifestyle in Calgary was one of, “Let’s slow down to appreciate and enjoy what we have and who we have around us.” I firmly believe that philosophy was an advantage on the ice.
What do you remember about your best race ever?
That I almost fell! One week prior to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, we did our last tune up race in Calgary, and it was our last touch up prior to the games. I had chased Jeremy (Wotherspoon) for the vast majority of the season, and the last competition had been the World Sprint Championships, in which I had tied for first in the last 500m. So my confidence was high as we did our final preparations in Calgary. That last little 500m tune-up meant nothing to the rest of the world, but it was huge for me. I felt great but I got into the last turn and had a slip that almost put me down. As I almost fell, I remember coming out of the turn and thinking my time was going to be crap and that I should remember how good I felt versus what my time was. I was shocked to see the clock say 34.5, less than two tenths off the world record of 34.39. It was a race I’ll never forget because I realized I had 33-seconds in me with the perfect race. It couldn’t have come at a better time as it gave me confidence that I could do such a great time without skating for about 40 yards in the second turn. I thought, “There is more in the tank,” and I couldn’t wait to get down to Utah to find it. Despite a gold medal and Olympic Record time of 34.4….I never skated the perfect race – perfection is elusive if not imaginary.
What other sports did/do you do?
I played soccer through high school and kicked for the football team my senior year in high school and as a freshman in college. I was all conference (go figure, speed skaters can kick balls harder and farther than the average human) but far from all world. I also loved to water ski…and another off-ice passion for me has always been the outdoors – hunting and fishing and conservation.
Did you pursue any education after skating? What field?
No, just the school of life. I got about half way thru my four-year degree at Carrol College in the six years I went to school there, but then moved to Calgary and wanted zero distractions outside preparing for 2002. By the time I retired after the 2006 Games I was 31, and blessed to have opportunities resulting from my good fortunes on the ice, so I felt it best to pursue those versus going back into the classroom.
What do you do now for work?
My primary occupation is working with businesses on their risk management and insurance programs. Ironically, Wausau Insurance was one of my key partners from 2002-2006 and, after looking at about a dozen potential opportunities (another being community affairs/public relations with the University of Wisconsin, another partner) I knew how I was wired, and that if I got into the UW position that it was going to be the kind of position that after two or three years I’d become complacent. I wanted flexible hours and flexible income, and ownership of those, just like I had in skating.
Pretty interesting insight! What hobbies, volunteer work, or special affiliations do you have now?
Well, my two primary passions at this point in life are my family/kids and their endeavors (which primarily means sports), and the “farms”. We bought the family farm from my mom’s parents and it’s been in the family for over 150 years. Then I had the opportunity to buy another farm that is close to Madison. I enjoy improving my “pieces of dirt”. Meaning, I love improving the wildlife habitat and watching wildlife on the farms. And while I do occasionally hunt, my passion primarily surrounds creating the habitat and watching the wildlife enjoy it. I enjoy the projects that I do on them, from responsible farming practices to planting over 20,000 trees, as it’s both therapeutic and a way of trying to make the world a better place. We are creating family memories, and hosting school field trips as well.
Final thoughts on the sport…Do you have a special memory from skating you’d like to share?
It’s such a wonderful sport in so many ways, and a big reason for that is the people involved. You learn so many things about life growing up as a speedskater and being part of the speed skating community - everything from having the right values in life to competing clean (by in large I believe our sport is a clean sport and am so thankful for that). Speed skaters and their families are passionate about our sport, and we probably all share the common trait of being just a little (or maybe I should say “just enough”) off our rockers, to be doing such a sport!
One thing you could change about your skating days if you could?
I wish I had spent more time getting to know foreign skaters and foreign places (might sound a little contradictory because of my days in Canada, but…) I was very serious and focused during my skating days. While other skaters were going out after Sunday evening banquets, I was heading back to my hotel room to study split times and video footage in order to find the seconds, then tenths of a second, then hundredths of a second I needed to find in order to win. Still I ask myself, “Casey, you could have done that and found some time to loosen up and enjoy the scenario, couldn’t you?”
Any special wishes/comments regarding the direction of the sport today?
Well, it never ceases to amaze me how we do so much with so little in the USA. Frustrating from a numbers perspective but a testament to our skaters and program and our culture. In my opinion, it all begins with believing. Believe And You Can Achieve – is a big motto of mine. I’m a huge believer in that, and I think our skaters believe they can achieve great things – and they go on and do it!
Good points Casey and fantastic memories - thanks for your time. Keep up the great work out there!