Cooper McLeod Ends Junior Career on a High Note and the 18-Year-Old is Excited for the Future

by Caitlin Moyer

After taking the previous year off from skating, junior Cooper McLeod returned to the oval for the 2020-21 season. Needless to say, with a global pandemic, this season was not how he envisioned his last one as a junior playing out. 

“At the time, I was having a frustrating time with skating because I hadn’t made the Junior World team, even though I came close a few times in a row. I needed a break from everything, just having been skating for so long,” McLeod explained. 

A 12-time National Champion who holds 13 National records, McLeod began inline skating at the age of three and took to the ice when he was eight.  

So, after 10 years in the sport, when he found himself entering his senior year of high school at Juanita High School, he opted to focus on the types of things and experiences he felt he would never get to do again, like play basketball and improve his social life. 

During his time away from the sport, McLeod didn’t complete any training for skating, only putting on skates a handful of times to help a coach in his hometown with competitions. 

McLeod says he was unsure of whether or not he was going to come back and compete again this season, but after reaching out to US Long Track Program Director Matt Kooreman, who put him in touch with FAST Team Coach Mitch Whitmore, he made the decision to get back into skating. 

“Training and coming back was really hard,” McLeod said.”I was so out of shape.”

It also made it difficult for him to anticipate how he would perform this season, so his initial goal was simply to do better than he had prior to his sabbatical. 

However, after his first time trials of the season, it was pretty clear that his goal was not high enough. 

“I was going faster than I thought and I had to set my goals higher, so I was getting more excited about competing at Junior Worlds. I knew I was going to be pretty close to medal contention,” McLeod recalled. 

Unfortunately, the day before he was set to leave for the 2021 ISU Jr. World Championships, the team received word that the event was cancelled due to the global pandemic.

“That was a huge shock and really hard to deal with,” McLeod said. “It was frustrating, especially knowing that it was my last year and this would’ve been my first Junior World team, but I’m happy with how I’ve performed this season because I know that I’m going to do pretty well going into next year at a senior level.”

Indeed. A few weekends ago, McLeod wrapped up his final junior season on a high note, competing alongside other juniors from across the country as well as Team USA seniors in the US Long Track Speedskating Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, UT. 

McLeod finished fourth in the Men’s 500m on Friday with a time of (35,51), and finished second in the second Men’s 500m race on Sunday, setting a National Junior Record and a new personal and season best with a time of (34,90).

The record he broke was set by teammate Jordan Stolz (Milwaukee, Wisc.) in the first race. 

“I was ecstatic with this weekend’s performance,” McLeod commented. “While I was pretty disappointed that I’ve never gotten an international experience, leaving the season with PRs in my 1000m and 500m races and shattering my 500 PR and doing something I knew I could’ve done all year, which was breaking 35,0….That makes me super happy and it’s great just to see that both Jordan and I are doing really well for being juniors; there haven’t been all that many juniors, i don’t think, that have gone under 35 seconds, so that’s great to see and it’s good to have each other to push ourselves as we get older. And, Austin (Kleba)--he set a PR, too--we’re all really close and that’s going to be good for all of us moving forward.”

FAST Team Coach Mitch Whitmore agrees. “This weekend was an incredible showing by our junior skaters. They put up some historic times that look very promising for the future of speed skating in the US.”

As he noted, McLeod also set a new personal and season best time in the Men’s 1000m, where he finished fifth (1:08,91) and bested that time in the second Men’s 1000m race on Sunday, where he finished fourth with a time of (1.08,76).

In particular, McLeod credits two people with contributing to his remarkable progress this season.

One is his brother’s baseball coach, Pete Wilkinson, a man he has always turned to for his perspective on the mental side of sports and thus, someone he consulted before he made the decision to return to the skating world.   

“He told me ‘Sometimes, to gain control of your own life, you can’t let the game you’re playing control you,’” McLeod said. “That could not hold more true for this situation. I was not having fun and it wasn’t a great time for me; I took the break, came back and I was revitalized. I was having a great time skating again. I was having fun every day. And that really just made such a huge difference. That was probably the biggest thing.”

The other person is Whitmore, who was instrumental in helping McLeod not only get back into shape, but improve.

“He had the same distances and strengths as I did going into the season when he was a skater, so he understood everything. He understood what it was like to not have all the endurance and he worked with me a lot on just taking a little bit at a time. He helped me see the bigger picture and did not let me get discouraged in how far I had to go when I first started back again,” McLeod said.

Said Whitmore, “Cooper laid down some very impressive times this weekend that would have been in strong contention for medals at the Junior World Championships. Missing out on that opportunity as a last-year junior is tough. Of course that's an experience you can’t get back but we’ve really tried to push towards what he can do as a senior. He has a big career ahead of him.”

In speaking with McLeod, it’s also clear that his positive attitude, healthy outlook and sense of perspective have all contributed to his success and will continue to serve him well in the future.

After losing the true experience of his senior year of high school to the pandemic, as well as missing out on the Junior World Championships, it would be easy to see how one might get down or be tempted to quit, but McLeod instead continues to forge ahead and chooses to focus on the positive. 

He is currently enrolled in Salt Lake Community College, working toward a degree in business while he continues to compete. 

And, as he transitions to the next phase of his skating career, McLeod says he will be working on maintaining that perspective.

“One thing this pandemic has shown us is that if you’re not positive, you’re going to be miserable. You have to take the little successes that you can have in any aspect of life. I think that lesson is going to be really good for people, especially the senior classes 2020 and 2021, but I think that’s going to be huge moving forward for everybody,” he said.

“As a junior, as you get older, it’s easier as a junior to be top of the world because it's an age kind of thing….As you get older, you’re going to be better than the people who are younger than you, even if they’re really good for their age. But when you hit the senior level, there’s a 10-year span of people who are there, so the talent level with seniors is incredible. You’ll go to the World Cup and the worst people at the World Cup are still top 50 in the world. They’re all incredibly talented and everybody’s super fast,” he explained. 

As far as his skating goals for the future, McLeod is looking forward to the World Cup in Salt Lake City, UT, but is humbly realistic. 

“I am just going to work on focusing on what I can control and how I am doing personally--getting better, lowering my times--and trying not to think about other people or results or anything like that.” 

One thing’s for certain. With the success of McLeod and many others during this strange, shortened season, the future of US Speedskating is very looking very bright, without a cloud in the sky. However, there will be a McLeod and we know that no matter what his transition from juniors to seniors brings, he’ll be sure to find a silver lining.