Fighting Back Time And Again, Cooper McLeod Continues Climbing Toward The Summit
by Nicole Haase
A bicycle accident ahead of the 2022-23 long track season was just one more setback in a long list of them for Cooper McLeod. The challenges might have discouraged another athlete, but not McLeod, an endlessly cheerful 21-year-old originally from Kirkland, Washington.
Growing up, McLeod came back from breaking both arms in a speed skating crash to become Sports Illustrated Kids’ SportsKid of the Month for July 2011.
Later, after plateauing a bit on the junior level, he took a break from the sport to reassess if it was really something he wanted to commit to. Upon returning, he was better than ever and became one of the best junior skaters in the world.
Then the pandemic happened, events were canceled, and McLeod’s junior career ended prematurely. Two years later, he missed qualifying for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a fraction of a second. He was determined not to let those setbacks hold him back either.
McLeod came into this past season feeling good, ready to kick off another comeback and start the new Olympic quad off strong.
Then, the bike accident.
Though not the greatest challenge he’s faced, the setback on top of the others he’s faced tested the limits of McLeod’s optimism and positivity, but after a strong finish to the 2022-23 season he insists he’s incredibly happy with where he is in his journey to become one of the best speed skaters in the world.
“Right now, I am very pleased with where I am,” McLeod said. “Obviously it’s not the best in the world, so it’s not the pinnacle of where I want to be eventually, but it is a great place, I think, for somebody of my age and my background to be.”
As he’s done so many times in his career, McLeod was able to turn a negative into a positive. His limited ability to train following the accident meant more time in the weight room and on a stationary bike. That helped McLeod get stronger in a way he feels was immediately apparent, especially in his 1000m race times.
Until he got back on the ice, it was impossible to know where he stood, McLeod said. He had hoped to consistently place among the top 20. After returning to the World Cup in November, he was a regular contender in B Divisions before ending the year 10th in the 1000m and 20th in the 500m at the Worlds Championships in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
The season helped him learn about planting seeds and setting a foundation, he said. He learned to build good habits, have solid execution and not chase individual highs. When the results started to come, McLeod said he felt like what he imagines mountain climbers feel when they crest a peak and finally get a glimpse of the summit.
“It’s not necessarily very close, but it’s attainable. You see where you’re going,” he said. “That is a great place for me to be. It leaves a lot of room for steady growth throughout the next four years (before the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026). I was carrying a lot of motivation. I had a lot of hopes for the 2022-23 season, and they ended up paying off. It was a whole long summer of hard work, training and personal growth within that, so seeing it pay off was fantastic.”
The focus this offseason continues to be on strength. In 2023-24, he’s now aiming to consistently place among top-15 while adding the 1500m race to his regular repertoire.
Being on the U.S. National Team has helped McLeod stay focused, trust the process and do the work every day to get better. Everyone around him is just as concentrated on being the best and that helps with motivation on the hard days, he said.
In a race, there’s not a lot of thinking or decision-making — the skaters rely on the training they’ve put in and muscle memory they’ve sculpted day after day to perform at their best. That’s why what they do day in, day out matters, said McLeod.
“Everything that you do every single day leads into the mistakes you make and the great things you do. It’s all a culmination,” he said.
McLeod’s dad instilled in him the idea that the moment he stops trying to learn, he has stopped trying to get better. It’s one of the reasons he looks at the near-miss at the Olympic trials as a life lesson.
“I wasn’t ready for the moment because I wasn’t mature enough yet,” McLeod said. “Not making the Olympics was terrible, but it was a result of that. I believe that even though it was terrible at the time, it helped teach me things that I’m going to be able to carry a lot further into my career. In the long run, I think it’s going to end up being a great thing.”
The bike accident might not seem as big of a disappointment, but added to all that came before it proved to be one of the more mentally difficult things McLeod had to work through. He admits he’s not always positive, and some days are more difficult than others. But that time away from regular ice training both solidified that he is where he belongs and showed him that no matter what problems he faces, he can overcome it.
“I’m glad that I had to go through that because it made me a heck of a lot stronger going into the future,” he said. “I think that was something that I’m going to carry through every aspect of my life.”
Nicole Haase is a freelancer for USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.