The first thing Rusty Smith noticed after transferring from his gang-ridden high school in Los Angeles to the sedate atmosphere of Lake Placid High was that someone had stolen all the bicycle locks.
It was only the beginning of the cultural shocks that would confront a California boy transplanted to upstate New York for the love of short track speedskating.
“I had seen snow before, but it’s not like living in it,” said Smith.
“It would be like negative-20 outside and the coach would say, ‘Let’s go running.’ I still don’t think that’s a good idea.”
But when the coach said run, Rusty Smith would run. And when the coach said skate, he would skate. Smith, just 18 years old, wanted to succeed at short track so badly he would last three years in that wilderness where no one needs bike locks.
“Part of why he’s good in this sport is because he has street smarts,” said Robert Ahlke, president of the Southern California Speedskating Association and one of Smith’s sponsors. “He knows how to think on his feet because he’s had to think in bad situations.”
Short trackers find themselves in bad spots with great regularity. As the pack zips around the small oval, it is easy to become hemmed in or, worse yet, to lose an edge and go spinning into the padded walls of the rink.
When the Olympic short track program begins tonight, Smith will be one of the top U.S.
hopes for a medal. He will skate both the 500 and 1,000 meters and will probably be selected for the 5,000-meter relay.
“When I started this, I never thought of going this far,” said Smith, who took up skating at age 12 on a rink across the street from the hospital in which he was born. “I like the challenge of racing head-to-head. You can be the fastest one out there, but you still might not win. You can be the best conditioned one out there, but might not win. That’s why it’s fun. You have to pick your strategy all the time.”
“He has confidence every time he goes out,” said teammate Eric Flaim. “He reminds me of myself. It’s always like he’s saying, ‘I’m going to win this thing.”’