25 Laps with Lucas Mills
Lucas Mills grew up in a family full of athletes. He spent his early years riding in the family van, traveling to competitions for his siblings’ many sports. He raced in his first speedskating meet as a Tiny Tot—he claims it was a disaster—and was competing regularly by the age of 7.
After years racing both long track and short track, Lucas moved away from home at the age of 14 to Milwaukee, where he soon earned a spot on the Junior National Long Track Team. He raced in three Junior World Championships and eventually made the Senior National Team, competing in both Sprint and Allround World Cups.
After retiring from skating, Lucas earned degrees from Yale University and Yale Law School before switching gears to pursue a career writing animation. He spent several years as a television writer for Nickelodeon, living in both New York City and Dublin, Ireland. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he writes cartoons at DreamWorks Animation.
Mark Greenwald caught up with Lucas recently for a few laps…
Let’s start off with some background info…
Lucas Ligon Mills
Where are you from? Where do you reside now?
I grew up in Northfield and Evanston, both northern suburbs of Chicago. Today I reside in Los Angeles, CA.
When did you start skating Lucas? Retire/Finish? or do you feel you’ll always be skating/a skater?
My mother was a close friend of Kitty Blatchford, mother of Olympian Nathaniel “Neil” Blatchford. Kitty pitched speedskating as a great family sport, and my mom enrolled the Mills kids right around the time I was born. So I grew up as a rink rat, as I had four older siblings and a younger brother who skated (Nathaniel, Hilary, Phoebe, Jessica, and Whitaker). I began skating myself probably around 1985 and I retired after the 2003 skating season.
I don’t skate much now, but I just took some rental skates for a spin this past weekend at a holiday public session here in Los Angeles. I can confidently say I was one of the top three fastest guys out there. Podium for sure (laughs).
So you began your skating career with a club?
Yes, I first skated for the Northbrook Speed Skating Club. Northbrook was a real hotbed of skating talent, and many accomplished skaters came from the club. I can still hear Coach Tom Healy’s voice running practice and I can still picture “the big guys” taking the track. A few years later, I skated with the Park Ridge Speed Skating Club, and then, when my family moved, I joined the Evanston Speed Skating Club. And finally, when I moved to Milwaukee, I skated with the West Allis Speed Skating Club.
Let’s talk a bit about your skating experience…
Why did you start/keep skating?
I started because my whole family was doing it, but I really liked it. I just think speedskating is a very cool, beautiful sport. It can be simultaneously so graceful and so powerful. By the time I was starting to get the hang of it, I just liked going fast. The feeling you get in the apex of a turn—or the sensation of when your timing is really clicking—it’s a very addictive feeling. It didn’t take long to start appreciating the technical nature of the sport. It’s one of the few sports that accommodates many different body types. You can be an impossibly lanky kid like myself and, with the right technique, you can go far.
Did you have any nicknames when you skated?
Ahh, yeah, plenty of people called me “Mills” and some others called me “Luke.” I was sort of named after Luke Skywalker, believe it or not. Tucker Fredricks still calls me “Caesar.” Nobody knows why. Nobody.
What do you consider your greatest skating accomplishments?
The highest level I reached was the World Cup circuit for Allround and Sprints (Long Track). But I consider my greatest accomplishments those moments when I raced well after a setback.
Generally, I’m most proud of putting my career back on track after a few years of significant injuries. With the help of my coaches, Mike Crowe and Ryan Shimabukuro, as well as my teammates and our support staff, I was able to recover from the physical and, just as significantly, mental consequences of injuries.
More specifically, I crashed in the Fall World Cup Qualifier in 2002 and damaged my blades. Everything (bend and radius) had to be reset for the next day’s races. Thankfully my coach Ryan Shimabukuro and teammate Kip Carpenter helped me put my equipment back together in time, and I was able to qualify for my first Sprint World Cup Team the next day. I’m proud of the way I raced, but more proud of how I was able to mentally recover from the setback to perform my best.
Who were your coaches/mentors in skating?
The coaches who had the biggest impacts on my skating were Michael Crowe, Lyle LeBombard, Dianne Holum, Nancy Swider-Peltz, and Ryan Shimabukuro. But there are a lot of other coaches and individuals who helped me along the way as well. Sam Poulos, Sam Hicks, Jack Mortell, Bart Schouten, Tom Cushman, and Chris Shelley all come to mind, as well as individuals in other non-coaching roles, like Carl Foster, John Hill, and Kim Nelson.
My teammates all taught me something, from technical points to how to get more out of myself to how to enjoy the process. I like to credit Joey Cheek with teaching me how to learn, how to understand the process of personal improvement.
As for mentors, my mom and dad and my brother Nathaniel were my biggest influences. My parents spent a LOT of time in the family van to give me a chance to be my best, and they helped me keep the whole journey in perspective. I was incredibly lucky to have so many siblings who were following their passions at such a high level, whether in sports or in another arena (Nathaniel and Hilary were speedskaters, Phoebe was a gymnast and a diver, Jesse was a figure skater and a speedskater, and Whitaker is a professional opera singer).
I also want to say I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Dohnal family (Darcie, David, and Cari were skaters, and their parents, Bob and Jean, continue to be great supporters of the sport) for taking me in like a family member and supporting me. It takes a village. For me, speedskating truly was the community sport that was pitched to my mom.
Do you have a particular place or favorite track/rink to skate?
Butte, MT, was always my favorite rink. I loved the geometry of that track and its slick ice, courtesy of its icemeister Charley Worley. I also liked SLC, Calgary, Collalbo, and Inzell. And no one will ever say they don’t like racing in Heerenveen. That place is simply electric.
Did you have a favorite place or somewhere memorable where you trained?
Butte, MT, was also one of my favorite spots for training. I loved the big bike rides over the continental divide. We also used to run up the forest fire road to the Our Lady of the Rockies statue - the large statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the town. I was really lucky that I was part of a “class” of skaters that got along really well, and my teammates and I really enjoyed those summers.
I definitely keep in touch with many of my old teammates. In fact, I recently attended the wedding of speedskaters Elli Ochowicz and Alexander Mark, and I got to see the old crew. Time passes, but it was easy to pick up right where we left off.
What was happening on the music scene when you were skating?
Alternative music was pretty big on the radio. I listened to bands like Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dave Matthews got really big. I was also pretty partial to U2. But having an older sibling meant that I was always also listening to something older. My big brother Nathaniel made me a Bob Marley tape when I was 12, and eventually I got into blues and classic rock, specifically Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. And I can’t forget all the time I spent as the fourth, maybe fifth, rhythm guitarist of Ben Strehle’s speedskater cover band.
What do you remember about your best race ever?
I don’t actually remember much from my best races! I remember more about my state of mind going into those races. When I was in a good mental place, I couldn’t wait to compete. That was just the way I was built when I was a junior, but when I started dealing with injuries, I lost that confidence for a while. It took work to regain that attitude, but I remember when I could feel it returning. And when it’s there, you step to the line and go get it.
What other sports did/do you do/participate in?
When I was younger, I played soccer and ran track and cross-country. As skaters, we also played some basketball and ultimate Frisbee to warm up. These days, I run a little, occasionally lift weights, and I love to ride my bike, sometimes in the old spandex, but mostly just to get around.
Did you pursue any education after skating? What field?
Yes, while I was skating I did two years of college at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Then I dropped out for a few years to focus on training and racing. When I stopped skating, I transferred to Yale to finish college. I graduated in 2005 as an American Studies Intensive Major. My senior project was about blues and folklore/mythology, and I was able to travel to the Mississippi Delta with a video camera to track down and interview old Blues musicians. It was a really cool experience. I then spent a year working as a paralegal in the U.S. Department of Justice and ended up going to Yale Law School. After I graduated, I worked in the legal department of Marvel Entertainment (working primarily in their film and television divisions). But I couldn’t shake my creative inclinations and decided I wanted to be a writer instead of a lawyer. So when I was offered a writing assistant job on a kids’ TV show at Nickelodeon, I took it.
What do you do now for work?
I write kids’ cartoons on television. I started my writing career on a preschool show called Bubble Guppies, which was an incredible learning experience and a great show. It even earned me an Emmy nomination, which was a nice surprise. Since then, I’ve written for a number of kids’ shows on a few different networks, including Nickelodeon, Amazon, and HBO. At the moment, I’m working on a cartoon series of Where’s Waldo? at DreamWorks.
I love writing cartoons. It’s fun and challenging, but I also feel a sense of responsibility, particularly when I’m writing for young viewers who might be experiencing new concepts through the show. It’s really satisfying to hear from friends whose kids watch the cartoons I’m writing. For instance, Nick and Annie Pearson’s first daughter was just the right age to appreciate Bubble Guppies. It was fun to hear about whether she liked—or didn’t like—about a particular episode.
What hobbies, volunteer work, or special affiliations do you have now?
I used to do some prison tutoring in college and participated in the Capital Punishment Defense legal clinic (where students will work with lawyers on a real capital case with the goal of avoiding the death penalty) when I was in law school. And when I started working in kids’ television, I blogged for a wonderful kids’ media networking group called Children’s Media Association. I haven’t gotten involved in any service work since I moved to California (a year ago), but I’m hoping to do some volunteering for a teen storytelling program in the future.
As for hobbies, I love playing dominoes. If I could play every day, I probably would. It’s a good, socially acceptable way to deal with all the competitive energy I’m no longer spending at the rink.
Final thoughts on the sport…
Do you have a special memory from skating you’d like to share?
I have a lot of great memories. From when I was a kid, I remember competitions like the Christmas Classic at the old Olympic Rink in Milwaukee, when we’d play tag between races. Skating always had its own culture, but it was really clear at that age, when visiting skaters were staying at each other’s houses for weekend competitions like the Great Lakes or the Evanston meet. It’s an individual sport, but it’s such an unusual shared experience that it’s easy to bond over it.
I also remember the 1997 Jr. World Championships (Long Track) in Butte, MT., when a massive snowstorm stalled the competition. We all had to pitch in and shovel the track while organizers piped Oldies through the High Altitude Sports Center’s sound system. That moment was a great blending of the competitive aspects of racing—we all still really wanted to win—with the communal experience of the sport.
One thing you could change about your skating days if you could?
I used to wish I had learned some of my lessons more quickly, from understanding how to mentally recover from injury to viewing technique the way I saw it at the end of my racing days. But now I think that was all part of the experience, and part of growing up. For the most part, I’m very much at peace with my memories and what I’ve taken from the sport.
Any special wishes/comments regarding the direction of the sport today?
Well, I’m so removed from what the sport is really like—I check in on the big competitions, but I don’t know much about how the sport looks at other levels—that it’s hard to say. I still think it’s a beautiful sport, and I appreciate it in a whole new way now—as a fan. At the elite level, I know that it’s tough to compete with the more professionalized countries with much bigger skater pools. But in such a technical sport, there’s always the opportunity to outthink the competition.
Good points Lucas and fantastic memories - thanks for your time. Keep up the great work out there!