Olympic hopeful inspires Bethel youth

by Mark Arehart on April 29, 2013

Liam Ortega talks with students in the Bethel Regional High School Gym.

Liam Ortega talks with students in the Bethel Regional High School Gym.

Bethel students had a special visitor last week: 2014 Winter Olympic hopeful Liam Ortega. The Fairbanks athlete took time out of his training schedule to talk to young people about setting goals and overcoming adversity, something he knows all-too-much about after fighting back from a traumatic brain injury.

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28-year-old Liam Ortega stands in the Bethel Regional High School gym surrounded by middle and high school students. He’s dressed in a red polo, black baseball cap and no shoes, just socks.

He hopes to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, where he would wear something a little different on his feet.

“I’m a speed skater,” Ortega says.

He describes his ice skates as pretty hefty. “Seven inches long. You’re racing against the person in the lane next to you on a 400-meter track, blades, ice, lots of speed. It’s at the Olympics coming up here. So (it’s) a few months away. You might have a chance to watch more of it and see an Alaskan there.”

The Olympic speed skating trials are in December, so Ortega is in the midst of some heavy training.

He says talking to young people is a part of that.

“Right now being out here in Bethel is a chance for me to share with the kids my approach to goal setting and also some of my training techniques and habits. So that, one, I can sharpen my own skills because I can learn from them as well. But also just all of us get excited. Working with them gets me stoked about my training. And I hope that my lessons I’m sharing with them gets them excited as well.”

One of the lessons focuses on running technique. Ortega says little changes in posture, foot alignment and how one engages certain muscles can make a big difference.

“I’ll share with them strength drills, balance, drills, agility drills, but mostly the bottom line is “get the attitude, get stoked.””

Ortega says people can do amazing things when they focus on how to approach their goals.

That’s something he’s learned first-hand.

“In 2008 a skater was doing a fast lap and hit me from behind on the ice going about 40 miles per hour. I spent a day in a coma and a week in the ICU. And after that week I lost 16 pounds of muscle. I went from being one of the top speed skaters in the country to being someone who couldn’t keep up with their mother on a seven-minute walk. So that recovery process was challenging to say the least.”

Initially, Ortega says basic things would completely drain him, like reading just three pages in a book.

Even though he was skating again just two and half months after his accident, Ortega says it was a full two years before he was back to normal.

“What I had to do for myself and what I’ve turned to share with the kids, is making that goal setting process an active process in your daily life. I had to do that for myself, simply because if you have a goal to make the Olympics but you can’t keep up with your mother on a seven minute walk. The realistic vision of that isn’t today. So I had to make tangible things to focus on today to see the progress for myself.”

So little by little he set goals for himself, and not just physical goals, but mental one’s, too.

“The challenge isn’t always the physical aspect, it’s the mental aspect. By presenting them with something that makes them feel nervous, put-on-the-spot, uncomfortable.”

One mental exercise uses a grid of boxes with the numbers 1-100 placed randomly throughout.

Students have one minute to find and mark the boxes in chronological order.

Ortega, who got the idea from a sports psychologist, says it makes people uncomfortable and forces them to stay calm and focused if they want to do well on the exercise.

“I don’t talk smack to the kids on this project, because I think it’s extremely hard as well. The number chart, I mean that tests you to the limit.”

He says he has not practiced in a while, but thinks he could check thirty boxes within the time limit.

And as for this reporter? He only got six.

But, I’ll do it with a little more focus next time.

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