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A Hockey Injury Set Austin Kleba On A Long Track Journey He Hopes Will Lead To Beijing

by Karen Price

Austin Kleba can point almost to the exact moment that his ice hockey career ended and his speed skating career began. 

Even if the memory’s a little hazy. 

A native of Campton Hills in the western Chicago suburbs, he was at a hockey camp in 2014 and had just injured the same shoulder on which he’d already had one surgery the year before. 

“I called my parents and I remember I was still a little loopy from the drugs they had me on, but the Olympics were happening that year and I was like, ‘I want to try speed skating,’” he said. “At the camp I’d tied a record for how fast I was in my age group. I was really fast, that was my strong suit. So I was upset and sad, but I said I wanted to try speed skating. On the way home from camp my mom was on the phone with the program director of the club where we lived.” 

Within a few weeks he’d traded in his hockey skates for speed skates. Now Kleba, 22, is hoping to make his first Olympic Team in long track speed skating. 

“I remember when I had to quit, (hockey) was my life, that was what I did, that was my passion,” he said. “I really wanted to go to a Division I school and go that route. But I learned a lot from quitting the sport and moving on to something else because even though it wasn’t my first choice at the time it ended up being better, in my opinion.” 

Some parts of the transition Kleba found easy. The explosive starts, for example, were similar, and just being comfortable on the ice helped. The hardest thing, he said, was learning the technique. 

It didn’t take long for Kleba to find success. Just two years into his speed skating career he went to the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where he won a Silver Medal in the mixed team sprint event. It’s still to this day his favorite event of his career. 

“(Snowboarder) Chloe Kim was there and I remember sitting next to her thinking wow, this is crazy just being with a bunch of people diligently working on their crafts as much as I am,” he said. “It was really fun.” 

When he’s not on the ice, Kleba spends his downtime making and recording music. You can find videos on TikTok of him recording guitar and other tracks, and although he’s self-taught on a number of instruments he’s currently taking music theory class and learning more about chord progressions, structure and patterns in composition. 

He’s been making music since he was about 14. 

“I really like the recording aspect of it,” Kleba said. “That way I can jam out with myself. I love to go jam out with other people, but in most cases I don’t have a full day to find a group of people to play with. Having my own recording stuff I can loop my own sounds and work on my own music.” 

The music theory class has him listening to a lot of different film composers, he said, and he also enjoys the more soulful side of rap and hip-hop. His favorite artist is the late Mac Miller. 

“He’s part of the reason I got into music,” Kleba said. “He’s not just rapping, he’s making music. It’s a song. I really respected him as an artist, and that’s what got me into making and producing my own music.” 

While music may one day be an even bigger part of Kleba’s life, for now he’s focused on doing everything he can to make the team that will travel to Beijing for the Olympic Winter Games in February.  

“Definitely I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically and in my skating technique,” he said. “I’m for sure going to do better than any other season in my career. I don’t know what everyone else is going to do, but I know that I’m going to be doing well this year. I can feel it.” 

Kleba earned the title of US Men’s Sprint Champion last winter after registering season and personal best times in Friday’s 500m final (35,10 seconds), Saturday’s 1000m (1.08,79) and then lowering his best time in Sunday’s 500m (34,89) at the National Championships. This October, he lowered his personal best time in the 1000m to (1.08,57). 

While it’s “pretty wild, pretty stressful, pretty crazy” to be just months away from the U.S. Long Track Olympic Team Trials, Kleba said the best thing he can remember right now is how much he’s grown in the past few years. 

“I’ve progressed not only as a skater but as a person,” he said. “I’ve grown leaps and bounds in my mentality and how I go about my life. Even if I don’t make the team, even if that dream doesn’t become a reality, there’s so much I’ve learned from this sport and so many things I’ve learned from the things I’ve done. The hardships I’ve gone through, the training aspect, I’ve become more mentally tough than I ever would have if I wasn’t in this sport, and for that I’m very grateful.” 
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.