He looks more like a coach, or perhaps a parent — despite the black-and-gold bandana on his head.
But speedskater Theron Sands is in Milwaukee this week to compete and to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Sands, a 53-year-old accountant from Champaign, will skate Thursday in the 10,000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic speedskating long-track team trials at Pettit National Ice Center.
Tuesday afternoon im the 5,000, he finished 10th with a time of 7 minutes, 5.17 seconds, racing against athletes in their teens and early 20s.
“And I beat three of them,” Sands said with a smile.
If Sands qualifies, he would become one of the oldest Winter Olympians ever. (That distinction belongs to Carl August Kronlund, a Swedish curler who earned a silver medal in 1924 at 58.)
The oldest U.S. long-track speedskater to compete in the Olympics was 40-year-old Jeanne Omelenchuk in the 1972 Games, according to sports-reference.com. Albert Tebbit, a 52-year-old from Britain, was the oldest ever to compete in the event in the Olympics in 1924.
If he doesn’t qualify, Sands said, he still will be proud.
“I feel very, very blessed and very, very lucky,” he said. “I know people I went to school with and their health is not good, and I’ve lost friends. It’s nice to hear from them that I’m inspiring to them.”
Most speedskaters retire in their early 30s, so for Sands to be challenging younger elite athletes and recording tough qualifying times is remarkable.
The U.S. team only has eight open spots for male athletes, and the 10,000-meter race has no qualifying spots available. Sands has a long shot to make the team as a reserve, but it would be likely that other athletes would be selected before him. The 10,000-meter winner would have the honor of being the national champion in the event.
“For a 53-year-old to take on this challenge is very odd,” his coach, Jeff Klaiber, said. “You have to be an eccentric guy to do that. He has no qualms about his age. He doesn’t let that stop him. He’s a model to the younger athletes. He learns fast. He does everything pro athletes should do. He’s just very dedicated and determined. It’s off the charts. He’s a complete outlier.”
Sands, an accountant for C-U Under Construction Inc., trains in Champaign part of the week at the University of Illinois ice rink. On Wednesday nights after work, he travels about 230 miles to Milwaukee to practice with his coach.
He said he takes daily ice baths in his tub to help him recover.
“Every one of the guys doing this, even the young guys, they’re sacrificing a lot to compete at this level,” Sands said.
His former Milwaukee-based coach, Robert “Roscoe” Fenn, died in October. Not only was that an emotional blow, Sands also had to adjust quickly to working with Klaiber as his new coach.
Sands grew up in Mississippi roller skating and inline skating and eventually began ice skating. He said he advanced to speedskating regional competitions but never qualified for a national team.
Then he had children, who are currently 29, 26, 23 and 21, and dropped the sport as he grew busier with work and family.
About 17 years ago, after he moved to Illinois, a co-worker challenged Sands to drop some weight. They began working out, and Sands figured he might as well enjoy himself. He started roller skating again, and then someone brought him to the Pettit National Ice Center, prompting him to get back on ice skates in 2007.
He eventually lost 75 pounds — and gained a new passion.
“I fell in love with this,” said Sands, who now weighs 195 pounds. “It’s very, very technical. It’s very difficult and intricate, and you’re working on the minutiae all the time. I realized I had a knack for (distance racing). I rose through the ranks.”
He said he has 12 world records for his age group, most recently in March setting the masters division (50-55) record for the 5,000-meter race in 6:59.3. He was six-tenths of a second from qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympic trials.
His turns, Klaiber said, are his “bread and butter.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone like him,” said Erik Henricksen, a U.S. long-track speedskater in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics who advises Sands. “He should be very proud of himself.”
Competing for a spot in the Olympics, Sands said, is already a triumph.
“Being here,” he said, “I’m a winner.”