Bold Consistent and Persistent 16 year old Aaron Liu is Growing the Sport

by US Speedskating

Bold, persistent and consistent. Those are three words that Rong Xu, mother of 16-year-old Aaron Liu, uses to describe her son’s efforts in accomplishing an incredible feat over the past 12 months.

In the past year, Liu has taken his vision of starting a local speed skating club to reality, creating a way to introduce new people to the sport, imparting his passion on others  and earning himself national recognition from US Speedskating for his efforts.

“During COVID, I noticed that kids were dropping out of sports, especially speed skating, and they were also becoming less active.I wanted to rectify that trend with an easy and accessible way of being physically active in a fun sport,” Liu said of his inspiration to start the Elmbrook Speedskating Club in the Elmbrook School District, located in the Elm Grove and Brookfield suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Liu was also inspired by the strong Olympic speed skating legacy in the Midwest and was able to work with local Olympians Bonnie Blair and Dave Tamburrino, as well as the Pettit National Ice Center, one of only 30 indoor 400-meter Speed Skating Ovals in the world and an official training Site for US Speed skating in Milwaukee, to make his dream come true.

“I wanted to build a school district club off of that and to use the resources that we have in this region to bring speed skating to more students,” he said. “Starting a club really sounded very intuitive to me. I just simply asked myself, ‘Why not?’ I’ve dedicated about 5-6 years to this sport so far and I just wanted to give back and allow others to enjoy and try out this sport.”

So, with those goals in mind, last August, the Brookfield Central High School (BCHS) student, who was sophomore at the time, began reaching out to Associate Principals for Athletics & Activities, Don Kurth (BCHS) and Ben Westphal (Brookfield East High School) to pitch his idea for a club. 

“First, Aaron was bold,” said Xu. “I think this is a natural trait of the younger generation because they don’t know boundaries. They are not thinking inside the box. They are thinking outside the box. As Aaron mentioned, he just asked himself ‘Why not?’ As an adult you slowly discover a lot of boundaries and sometimes you impose your own boundaries before you even do that,” she said.

After a few setbacks, due primarily to the pandemic, and many meetings and emails, Liu’s persistence paid off

“He started last August, he bumped into a lot of roadblocks, but he kept on. He did a presentation to Bonnie Blair in November of last year. He bumped into Dave (Tamburrino) and basically gave him the presentation by the rink. After that, he sent almost monthly follow-up communication to the athletic directors. Finally one day at 7 in the morning, the director called his cell phone. He said, ‘Aaron, we can have the talk now.’ That was the turning point. Right after that we had an info session and it just kept going,” Xu recounted.

The school district held that inaugural information session in March, kickstarting the club’s effort into the spring season. With students of all grades and ages from within the district participating in the club from as young as five years old through senior year of high school, Elmbrook Speedskating Club is currently the only school district speed skating club in the United States. 

“We started with around 20 members the first day, which was huge,” Liu said. “So far we have achieved a lot, especially for a club that just started four months ago. We consistently average around 12-14 skaters per session which really solves the membership issue that plagues clubs around the nation.”

The club has held multiple sessions for its skaters so far, hosting a spring season in April and May, and then adding two more seasons in the summer, with camps in June and August.

“This has helped our skaters tremendously and a lot of them are ready to move on to the next step,” said Liu. 

Liu’s coach, Hongyang Wang, is a former member of the China National short track speed skating team. His career highlights in National Championship competition include gold in the 1500m in 2005 and All-Around National Champion in 2009. Hongyang competed on the Short Track World Cup circuit and World Championships for China between 2002 and 2010. He made the World Cup podium four times for both individual and the relay. He also helped his team to the 5000m relay gold at both the 24th and 25th Winter Universiade.

Now, as a highly-decorated speed skating development coach based in Milwaukee at the Pettit National Ice Center, Wang works with skaters from a variety of ages and abilities and has also made significant efforts in the growth of the sport, using his relationships to recruit new members to try the sport.

“Aaron has basically finished the dream I had,” Wang said. “After I moved to the United States and became a coach, I realized we needed to reach a younger generation and  feed our junior development programs and even the national team. Aaron has created a complete pipeline from grassroot and club-level to a pre-elite and elite level junior program. He’s done a lot of work and has a lot of pressure on his young shoulders. That’s really impressive for a young man.”

Wang says that Liu is one of the best younger athletes that he’s ever seen and, although Liu himself is an excellent skater, it’s not just because of his athletic ability and talent on the ice.

“It’s because he truly loves the sport. He is really passionate about it and he’s willing to put in the effort and do all that he can to develop the sport and make the sport bigger,” Wang said.

“Aaron has really benefited from the consistent training program at the Pettit, from coach Hongyang and from all the mentors around him. He knew that once you have a vision or a goal, the only way to execute is to be consistent. Stick to it. I'm most proud of how he’s grown in the past year because of this club. It brings him great pride and elevates his self-esteem...he wants to give back and he wants to mentor,” Xu said. 

Carolyn Spiewak, Director of Speed Skating at the Pettit National Ice Center, has also worked with Liu during this process, helping to plan the camps and develop a system with low barriers of entry for new skaters. She shares the same sentiments as his mother and coach.

“Aaron is a thoughtful, disciplined, and motivated young man, who loves speed skating and wants to share the sport with as many people as he can. He is also persistent, professional, and exceptionally organized for someone his age,” she said.

Spiewak also believes that the Elmbrook Speed Skating Club possesses a lot of potential to change the landscape of speed skating in the U.S. 

“The working model he established in the spring of 2021 quickly gained momentum and members over the summer. I look forward to seeing how the Club develops this fall when sessions move to the long track for practice.”

Dave Tamburrino, a former Long Track and Short Track speed skater who competed in the 1994 and 1998 Olympic Winter Games, now works with US Speedskating, serving as the organization’s Regional Development Coordinator, and is one of the individuals instrumental in helping Liu get his idea off the ground.

“What Aaron is doing is so important for the whole sport of speed skating. There are a lot of options for young kids to choose from when it comes to sports and activities and a lot of them are very expensive. Being a parent, it’s hard to find those good, positive environments that have a relatively low risk and affordable point of entry and Aaron’s found a way to do that through a partnership with the Pettit Center--to make it as affordable as possible, so he’s really mitigated that. What he’s doing is so incredibly important overall because he’s bringing new young skaters into the sport. If we could only have 100 Aarons that would be wonderful,” he said. 

Fellow local Olympian Bonnie Blair Cruikshank, who is one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, competing for the United States in four Olympics and winning five gold medals and one bronze medal, was also enlisted for assistance by Liu during this process. Equally impressed with his hard work and never-give-up attitude, she echoed Tamburrino’s statement, saying, “US Speedskating for sure needs an influx of skaters and Aaron is really at the forefront of it.”

In May, Liu was named the 2021 winner of the US Speedskating Athlete Advisory Council (AAC) Dedication To Sport Award for his efforts in growing the sport and creating the Elmbrook Speedskating Club.

However, Liu’s vision doesn’t stop in the Elmbrook School District. Remember, as Xu said, he’s bold. And he has bold plans.

"Our vision is to create a talent base for US Speedskating in the Midwest region by starting more grassroots efforts in the schools and getting skaters from those areas,” Liu began. 

“I’d like to have this club to blend into the Pettit Center’s programs and make a pathway based on US Speedskating’s athletic development model in the region and then, in the next few years when we accumulate a solid base of talent in the Midwest, I also want to use the Elmbrook Speedskating Club as a model for school district speed skating clubs. Most likely, it’s just going to start out in the greater Milwaukee area, but maybe we can expand to the entire nation,” he said.

While that may seem like a lofty goal, with Liu’s strong passion for the sport, his bold personality, his consistency and persistence, those plans may not be too far off. Regardless, one thing is for certain, at just 16 years old, Liu has a bright future ahead of him and so does the sport of speed skating, thanks in large part to his efforts.