Dreams on ice
Denton’s Jordan Malone, a bronze medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, had no guarantees he would end up here — headed to Sochi for his Winter Olympic sequel.
Malone tends to test Murphy’s Law too regularly. And predictable endings are hardly a given for short track speedskaters, who race in a pack around an icy oval.
“You basically put your life on hold when you train for the games,” said Malone, who snagged the fifth and final U.S. roster spot during team trials last month in Utah. “It is a huge gamble. … You gamble four years of your life.”
As part of his five-ring venture, Malone overcame another series of injuries in a career that’s been full of them and weathered an ugly mess in which the national coach was ousted amid allegations of abuse.
Malone, 29 and a newlywed, scrapes by on the $500 per month stipend he receives from U.S. Speedskating. Because he went for a second Olympics, he won’t complete his college degree until he’s a 30-something.
But Malone, a master of persevering, has always done big things the hard way. The Sochi Games’ opening ceremony is Friday.
“All the obstacles!” said his mother, Peggy Aitken, who’s been there for all of them. “It hasn’t been easy. … I’m really proud of my son. He’s done it again.”
Malone said he felt he had more left after Vancouver. He medaled in the 5,000-meter relay, but only after a calamitous few days. He was disqualified in his opening heat of the 1,500 and fell after hitting a block just strides from advancing in 500 qualifying, sprawling and sliding into the boards instead.
“I hadn’t done everything I wanted,” Malone said. “I’m hoping this time around I can get an individual medal and medal with my team. The fact that I’m going to the games again just solidifies that it wasn’t a fluke the first time.
“I needed some more testing of myself.”
Malone will compete in the 500 in Sochi and is expected to again be part of the relay team, which could have a better chance at gold. Teammate J.R. Celski is poised to be a breakout star for the U.S., trying to fill in for the retired Apolo Anton Ohno, who became the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian in Vancouver.
Scenes from a career
Malone avidly — and lightheartedly — chronicles U.S. team high jinks and international travel adventures on video, which he uploads to YouTube. Picture snippets from a team trip to a Cold Stone Creamery in Shanghai, for example. NBC has shown interest in using some of his footage.
If one could edit together scenes of Malone’s back story, it would go something like this: began inline skating at 5, competed in international competitions by 10. He trained on a 400-meter course in Denton subdivisions, with Aitken scooting along on a 1970s moped to time him.
Skating helped Malone overcome attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and dyslexia.
He won world titles in inline, but the sport was never voted into the Olympic program. Ohno captivated Malone during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and Malone decided to make the switch to ice.
Malone nearly qualified for the 2006 Turin Games but suffered a broken ankle in the weeks before Olympic trials. He tried again, making the U.S. team in 2010 at age 25. He glided around Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum with a Texas and an American flag after finally securing his bronze medal in the relay after his initial snakebitten start to the games.
The years since have been building toward the second act in Sochi.
Trouble along the way
Malone first needed surgery to repair his torn ACL, which he’d injured before the Vancouver Games while goofing off in a sumo wrestling suit at a birthday party.
Complications led to patella tendinitis, which kept Malone off his skates for essentially all of the 2010-11 season. Meanwhile, Malone moved from his training base in Salt Lake City to Marquette, Mich., to take advantage of a program at Northern Michigan. Malone took classes toward his interest in electrical engineering while training at the school’s rink.
He moved back to Utah in the spring of 2012 to narrow his focus back to skating.
He had to solve a frustrating case of advanced tendinitis in his Achilles. It took time to uncover the cause, which turned out to be the mold of his skating boot — leaving him in a walking cast for about two months. The lingering injury made Malone wonder if he’d be able to keep going.
Things would only get worse, for Malone and U.S. Speedskating. Malone joined a group of U.S. skaters who in 2012 boycotted the national training program and alleged physical and emotional abuse by then-U.S. coach Jae Su Chun. The U.S. program was rocked by the allegations, dividing skaters who supported the coach and those who didn’t.
Allegations included Chun ordering U.S. skater Simon Cho to tamper with a competitor’s skates. Chun has denied the accusations. He resigned and eventually suspended for two years by the International Skating Union for violation of the code of ethics.
“We got rid of a huge negative influence,” said Malone, who was outspoken throughout the scandal. “It’s better for some than it is for others. I still hold quite a grudge.”
The hard knocks, though, eventually eased up.
Change on the home front
Malone had been in a growing relationship with Angela Kim, a young Canadian with whom he’d struck up a conversation on Facebook.
“Four years later we haven’t stopped talking,” Malone said.
On one of Angela’s visits to Utah from Toronto in October, Malone told her: “Why don’t you just not go back?”
The couple ran off to Las Vegas and got hitched. They’ll have a more traditional ceremony in May in Denton.
During the U.S. trials last month, Malone — with Angela and Aitken in the stands — built up qualifying points during the first days of competition. He did well enough that he survived falls, including one on which he bruised his ribs, to secure the final spot on the team.
“What’s impressed me,” said U.S. coach Stephen Gough, noting all the on-ice time Malone missed over the last four years, “is that he’s been able to come back and skate at a world-class level.”
Malone’s lone individual event in Sochi, the 500, is 4 1/2 laps — 40 seconds of pure sprinting. With the cluster of racers fighting for position, the start is key.
“Passing at those speeds is very difficult,” Gough said. “If you get stuck at the back of those races, you’ve got to know how to pass and take advantage of opportunities, because there aren’t many.”
The U.S. will be one of the favorites in the relay after strong World Cup showings. The lineup for relay qualifying and the finals will be determined as the competition nears.
The last hurrah
Malone’s wife and mother booked their plane tickets to Sochi, thanks to frequent flier miles and online donations at www.gofundme.com/Jordanmalone2014. Malone is hoping for more help. Aitken will stay up at night to work online while it’s daytime in the U.S. for her job supporting accounting software. “I just won’t get a lot of sleep,” she said.
Aitken said she is taking a cue from her son and focusing her energy on Malone’s races more than the widespread news coverage raising security concerns in Sochi.
As an “old man,” as Malone calls himself, he’s not saying it for certain, but this likely is his final Olympics.
After the last four, long years, how the Olympic competition unfolds is still part of the gamble he’s been so willing to take. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, he’s made it back.
Malone walked in the opening ceremony in Vancouver against the wishes of his coaches, who didn’t want the athletes on their feet for a long period. It’s a good bet Malone will be there again in Sochi, taking it all in.
“At this point,” he said, “you can’t control whether you get a medal or not, but you can control whether you walk or not. There’s one thing you can control — just make sure you don’t have regrets.”
Residence: Salt Lake City
Olympic history: Won bronze medal in 5,000-meter relay at 2010 Vancouver Games; will compete in 500 meters and 5,000-meter relay in Sochi.
Notable: Attended Denton High School for three years before finishing through a correspondence course. … Suffered an inline skating injury in Switzerland in 2002, smashing his face into a timing box. His face had to be reconnected to his skull with 16 screws and four titanium plates. … Buffalo Wild Wings in Denton has been holding Jordan Malone nights each Thursday leading up to the Sochi Games.
Feb. 13 — 5,000 relay semifinals
Feb. 18 — 500 heats
Feb. 21 — 500 quarterfinals, semifinals and finals; 5,000 relay final