Watching speedskating races in the Winter Games, J.P. Shilling will feel he’s back at the starting line. The hush before the gun fires ... the skaters poised to burst forth on the ice.
“You’re standing in this big arena and there’s dead silence. You could hear a pin drop,” Shilling said. “Speed skaters are charged up, like thoroughbreds; it’s hard to stay still. Your legs are twitching. You want to go, really bad. Then, during the race, on the straightaways, your legs scream in pain, trying to recover from the last turn before you hit the next one.”
Sitting home in Phoenix, Ariz., eyes glued to his family’s new 75-inch TV, Shilling will recall those memories he holds dear.
“I can put myself in [the skaters’] heads,” he said. “ I know what they are trying to achieve.”
It has been 16 years since John-Paul Shilling, a Dulaney grad, competed in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. At 1,500 meters, he placed 14th with a time (1 minute, 46.29 seconds) that was a personal best.
“My goal was to make the top eight,” he said. “But the night before, I didn’t sleep well. It being my first games, I must have gotten up 10 times. My legs were pretty fatigued, plus a slip on the second lap cost me some time. But that’s life.”
Then 30, Shilling was part of a speedskating corps that carried America, winning 11 of the 34 U.S. medals. Five months after the 9/11 terror attacks, he found himself marching into the University of Utah stadium as the crowd chanted “USA! USA!”
“It was such a moving experience. We got really choked up,” he said. “Cameras flashed for so long, it was like an endless kickoff at the Super Bowl. We waved to people with one hand and tried to balance our video cameras with the other. The batteries wore out quickly; back then, there were no cellphones to record things. I kept tearing up and, at 20 degrees, my eyelids kept freezing.”
Shilling had made Team USA by 1/100th of a second. Even now, it boggles his mind.
“When I speak to kids’ groups, I tell them, ‘From the time you blink to the time your eye is open is 7/100th of a second.’ It’s such a small fraction,” he said. “ For me, it was a miracle.”
Now married with two children, Shilling works as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. He rarely straps on the skates, save for his stepdaughter Koren’s ninth birthday party last year at a local rink.
“There I was, out on the ice with 10 little girls clinging to my hands,” he said. “I was the designated hold-everybody-up guy; I was like a tree.”
For a time, he toyed with playing hockey, to no avail.
“After all those years of turning left in speed skating, I looked the fool turning right,” he said.
It’s unlikely that his son Ashton, 7 months, will take to the ice.
“I’ll try to put golf clubs in his hands,” Shilling said. “I’m so in love with warm weather now that I don’t want to go back to the cold.”
He cherishes his keepsakes, from an Olympic ring to the Team USA jackets he wore during the opening and closing ceremonies.
“I have my skates, though they are so narrow — and I’ve gained 20 pounds — that I doubt I can get my feet in them,” he said. “And I kept the skin suit I wore in the races. Haven’t worn it; it was tight even then. It has some stretchability, and I’d have to grease it up a bit to get into it. But I’d have difficulty breathing, for sure.”