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Living In A Yurt Helped Speedskater Maria Lamb In Quest For Fourth Olympic Berth

by Karen Rosen

Maria Lamb celebrates after winning the ladies mass start event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials on Jan. 7, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wis.

 

Maria Lamb’s health issues were so severe in 2015 that the three-time Olympian lost her national team spot as well as her funding. 
Determined to become a competitive long track speedskater again, Lamb survived on bone broth soup and moved into a yurt.
That might not appeal to everyone, but it worked for her.
Eventually Lamb’s digestive system allowed her to expand her diet. And she saved a lot of money by living in the authentic Mongolian yurt, which cost about $6,000, for four years – three by herself and one with her eventual husband.
“When I got it, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, what am I getting myself into?’” said Lamb. “But I ended up really, really loving it. People were always surprised how cozy and nice it was inside when they came over.”
The 35-year-old had an even bigger surprise for the speedskating community on Oct. 23. After competing sparingly for the past several years, she raced the 5,000-meter, her favorite event, at the world cup qualifier on the Utah Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City.
Lamb clocked 7 minutes, 10.77 seconds, which was only a little more than a second off her personal best of 7:09.62 from back in 2009. Consider that in 2020 Lamb’s fastest time was 7:25.71 and she went 7:33.09 in 2019 and 7:31.74 in 2018. 

 

 


On Friday, Lamb will compete at a world cup in Stavanger, Norway, with an Olympic berth at stake. Only 12 athletes in the women’s 5,000 will qualify for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. with a maximum of two per country. 


Lamb ranks No. 13 on the world list, but nine of the women ranked ahead of her are from the Netherlands.


While there are four long track speedskating world cups prior to the Olympics, this is the only one featuring the longest distance races for men and women.


“It is a one-and-done deal,” Lamb said, adding with a laugh, “so don’t mess it up.”


Jamie Jurak will also compete for Team USA in the 5,000. The men’s 10,000 has a similar selection procedure with Casey Dawson the top American contender.


This is Lamb’s first world cup since December 2018, and she admits she wasn’t in good form for that race in Poland. When was the last time Lamb felt she was competitive internationally? The world championship in the Netherlands in the spring of 2015.


“I think I still know what to do,” she said. “I guess we’ll find out.”

 

Lamb’s gift for research, as much as her talent on the ice, is responsible for her comeback. The Wisconsin native took her first “learn to skate” class across the border in Minnesota when she was 6. “I was pretty terrible at learning tricks of any kind in figure skating,” Lamb said. “All I wanted to do was just skate laps around the little hockey rink as fast as I could.”
So, she became a speedskater at age 8. Lamb made her first Olympic team in 2006 in the 1,500, finishing 24th, and was fifth in team pursuit. In 2010, she achieved her goal of making Team USA in the 5,000, but fell in training a few days later, jeopardizing her Olympic experience.
“I went into the pads feet first and stuck one blade into the other ankle, and I cut myself pretty deep,” she said. “It ended up getting infected and I arrived in Vancouver with a walking boot on and on a ton of antibiotics.”
Lamb wasn’t sure she’d be able to skate 12 laps in a row, but she did and was proud of her performance in placing 15th.
In 2014, Lamb was 16th in the 5,000 as the whole American long track speedskating team under-performed. “Emotionally, that was definitely really difficult for me,” she said. “Afterwards you have to try and move on as best as you can.”
But something began holding Lamb back in 2015. She struggled with both training and racing, failing to recover like she had before. When the season ended, she felt even worse.
Lamb couldn’t eat anything without being sick. She was diagnosed with advanced celiac disease and informed her small intestine was extremely damaged. “They told me, ‘You’re not really able to properly digest or assimilate nutrients and food,’ which obviously seems pretty problematic if you’re trying to be an athlete,” Lamb said.
That’s when she demonstrated her ability as a researcher. Because Lamb’s doctors were recommending medication which only would mask her symptoms, she found a doctor in the United Kingdom specializing in “healing the gut through diet” and followed her protocol.
Since Lamb was no longer part of the national team and did not have funding, she got a part-time job at a gated community in Park City, Utah, where she rented out bikes in the summer and skis and snowshoes in the winter. She also gave guided hikes.
And Lamb bought the yurt to reduce her living expenses. “I was trying to set up my life to make skating still a possibility,” she said.
Lamb found “some incredibly generous people” who let her put the yurt on their property and run a power cord to their house for electricity. Although the yurt was 19 feet across and a little over 300 square feet, it did not have indoor plumbing. It did have a wood stove for heat, a standalone sink with a 5-gallon bucket underneath and a 5-gallon water jug with a spigot, and a two-burner camp stove that was sufficient for whatever Lamb wanted to cook.

Maria Lamb competes in the ladies 5000 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials on Jan. 4, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wis.

 

Although she never stopped skating completely, Lamb didn’t compete at all in the 2016 calendar year. “I was sick enough at that point that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to train again or even do a lot of the things that I loved again,” Lamb said. “That was really hard. By that spring and summer, I started to get a bit better.”
She was finally able to get out on her bike. “At first I had to go for incredibly short rides and get used to the fact that I didn’t pass anybody,” Lamb said, “but lots of other people passed me.”
Without the support of the national team, she learned to coach herself.  In 2017, Lamb was fit enough to race at the national championships in the 3,000, which was her first result in more than a year. In the season leading into the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Lamb at last was able to start training consistently.
At the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Long Track Speedskating, she was sixth in the 3000 and third in the 5000, although she finished almost 19 seconds slower than the winner at the longer distance. 
Going into the mass start, Lamb drove to the Oval thinking it would be her last race. She told herself, “Finish this the way you want to end your career.”
Lamb knew she had little chance of making the Olympic team because selection was based on three races, and she had not done well in the first two races the previous fall. 
“I decided to just give it everything I had and lay it all out there and I ended up winning,” Lamb said. “And that’s not something I ever expected going into it, so then I was kind of like, ‘Oh gosh, maybe I’m not done.’ You have this taste again of what it feels like to race well.”
But she would have to wait until after Olympics to pursue that feeling again. In the meantime, Lamb’s boyfriend Brian House, who is now her husband, began teaching her how to backcountry ski, something she’d wanted to do for years. Unfortunately, Lamb crashed and injured her hip badly enough to need crutches. She was on the couch watching the PyeongChang Games when she saw Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen win her 15th medal, a record for a Winter Olympian, at nearly age 38.


Curious about Bjoergen, Lamb decided to do some research. The first article that popped up mentioned that the Norwegian had switched from a lot of high intensity training to mostly lower intensity volume.
Lamb wanted to see if she could make Bjoergen’s philosophy work for her. “That was a big part of the reason why I kept skating,” she said. “I started looking at it as this puzzle I was trying to solve. I always felt like – and I still do -- my best race is still out here.”
The pieces didn’t always fall into place easily.
“I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes and gotten frustrated and threatened to quit plenty of times,” Lamb said. “So, I’m not going to say it all went smooth.”
While she writes her own training program, she has input from House as well as Shani Davis, the Olympic gold medalist who is now retired and coaching a private team in the Salt Lake City area.
“We’ve been really good friends since we were kids, so he knows me well and he always has good advice.,” Lamb said of Davis. “He helps me a lot with technical stuff.”
She skates with Davis’ team at least once a week and enjoys the company, but said she probably skates less and bikes more than a lot of her fellow athletes.
“I experimented with a lot of things last year, and hopefully learned a bit about myself,” Lamb said.
Despite turning 36 in January, she isn’t worried about her age. Lamb said research shows that performance doesn’t start to decline among runners until after age 40, and she assumes the same holds true for skaters.
“I think a lot of people — especially if they’ve trained really hard full-time every year — maybe they start to get tired of it, or achieved everything they’ve wanted to,” Lamb said, “so I think a lot of people retire before they necessarily have to.  I think if you’re willing to adapt and change your training a bit to continue to work for you, you can continue to do really well into your mid- to late 30s.”
She even managed to squeeze in a wedding in September. Lamb and House tied the knot at Bald Mountain Pass in the Uinta Mountains. “It’s the highest paved pass in Utah – 10,700 feet – so we hiked a little bit from a trailhead parking lot,” Lamb said. “It rained all around us, but never on us, which was relatively incredible.”

 

 


Lamb and House live outside of Park City in a home at about 8,000 feet they built while living in the yurt, which is in storage waiting to be used again.


“I live up here because I love it, but I would like to think that living at altitude gives you benefits,” Lamb said. “There’s a good amount of research on that.”


But the veteran Olympic skater doesn’t need to do research to know how to compete. She only must look within herself. “The way I love to race is just go out there and give it everything I have,” Lamb said, “and not try and play games with other people or do fancy stuff. ‘All right, you’ve got this many laps – just empty yourself as completely as you can.’


“That’s who I am.”

Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.
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