Speed skater KC Boutiette made his Olympic debut at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, and is aiming for a medal in the mass start in PyeongChang.
Speed skating beginnings
KC Boutiette first became aware of skating at ten years old, when he saw Eric Heiden-or as he remembers it, “some dude in a gold suit with big legs”-skating at the 1980 Olympics.
Already a roller skater on quad (four wheel) skates, Boutiette was struck by the speed skaters’ tight uniforms, a stark contrast to the more laidback outfits Boutiette was used to. “[At the time] we were wearing loose clothing, what have you, and no helmets, so we thought we were cool,” he remembers thinking.
But he also recalls thinking to himself, “Well, I wanna go to the Olympics too. This guy won five gold medals. I wanna win something too.”
12 years later, Boutiette quit his job as a construction worker to dedicate himself full-time to competitive inline skating, and in 1993 he won the prestigious International Inline Skating Association title.
But the then-23-year-old still had an itch to compete at the Olympics, so he borrowed his friend’s too-small skates and tried skating on ice for the first time.
“Needless to say, one of my toenails came off. But I was so excited to skate. That’s all I wanted. So I just jammed my feet into these bad boys and started ripping up some laps.”
And only six weeks after trying the sport, Boutiette made the 1994 Olympic team.
Boutiette qualified for the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics in one event, the 1500m, and finished 39th.
Four years later at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Boutiette raced in three distances and finished in the top ten with American record times in all-but didn’t win a medal. His best result was in the 1500m, where he broke the Olympic record. But four other skaters subsequently beat his time to reset the record, and he finished fifth.
However, it was another race in Nagano that he names as the best moment of his Olympic career.
“My favorite Olympic moment, believe it or not, was an eighth place finish in the 10,000 meters in Nagano in 1998,” he said. “It wasn’t a medal. It wasn’t-it’s hard to explain. You know, when you go as fast as you possibly can and you push yourself to the limit, all you can do is expect the best out of yourself.”
Paired with a more decorated skater, Boutiette remembers being surprised when he started pulling ahead and then crossed the finish line first.
“I’m like, wow, that was a 20 second personal best, a new American record. I couldn’t have gone any faster. That was my favorite Olympic moment,” he said.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Boutiette set yet another American record in the 5000m but finished off the podium in fifth.
Boutiette’s last Olympic appearance came in Torino in 2006. Already one of the oldest skaters at 35 years old, Boutiette finished 19th in the 5000m and sixth in the team pursuit.
Nearly eight years after his last Olympic appearance, Boutiette proved to himself and others that he was still a top speed skater when he competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
While Boutiette never officially retired after Torino, he moved to Miami to run a bike shop and competed sparingly. In 2013, a suggestion from Eric Heiden, who had inspired him back in 1980, pushed Boutiette back into the sport.
The two friends were discussing the approaching U.S. Olympic Trials for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Boutiette remembers Heiden telling him, “Man, you should skate. You know, just show these kids that you can still do it.”
Boutiette didn’t make the speed skating team for Sochi, but he did surprise himself and Heiden with his respectable race times.
“I skated the 1,000 meter and I skated a great time,” Boutiette said. “I mean, it was a fantastic time for me. And coming off the ice, [Heiden is] high fiving me. He’s like, ‘Man, where did that come from?’
“And I was like, ‘Dude, it just happens.’ But having a guy like that in your back pocket supporting you, and cheering you on is huge.”
Boutiette didn’t make the Sochi team, but performed strongly enough that it seemed the PyeongChang Olympics weren’t out of reach–especially when he learned that a new event, the mass start, would be added to the Olympic program in 2018.
In the mass start, up to 24 skaters race simultaneously, as opposed to racing in pairs like in the other individual speed skating races.
“The mass start is like NASCAR on ice,” Boutiette said. “You’ve got 24 guys ripping around, tight turns, crashes, strategic maneuvers the whole race, everyone’s trying to position themselves behind this guy or that guy, and everyone kinda has a game plan… So there are a lot of mathematics going on during the race. And the really cool thing is that the first guy across the line wins, and that’s what makes it real exciting.”
Boutiette thought that his success in skating marathons, which have a similar format to mass start, would give him an advantage in this new event. He was proved right at the Nagano World Cup in 2016.
His goal for the mass start was to perform well enough in the intermediate sprints, which result in sprint points, in order to qualify the U.S. a world championship berth. But after winning the second immediate sprint, “I glance back, nobody’s with me, so I just kinda continue to skate off.” When two other skaters catch up with him, he thought to himself, “Oh man this is gonna hurt bad” but decided to try and stay with the race leaders.
“I was just struggling… I don’t know if I’m gonna make it or not. And then with two laps to go I’m like, ‘Man, we got a shot.’ I don’t know how I did it, actually, but you know, at the end it was that close and I ended up getting a silver medal, which was actually one of my highlights of my career.”
In addition to winning a mass start silver medal at the 2016 Nagano World Cup, Boutiette finished 12th at the 2017 World Single Distance Championships in the same event.
Boutiette’s medal-winning performance at the Nagano World Cup was not just a personal triumph-it was a historical one. Then 46 years old, Boutiette became the oldest speed skater ever to win a World Cup medal.
If Boutiette wins an Olympic medal in PyeongChang, he’ll be the oldest speed skater ever to do so. That honor currently belongs to Finland’s Julius Skutnabb, who was 38 years old when he won 5000m silver at the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics.
In addition to the American and Olympic records he’s set over the course of his career, Boutiette was a world record holder-for about 24 hours. On March 15th, 1997, Boutiette broke the 1500m world record, but it was broken again the next day by Canada’s Neal Marshall.
Many of the current U.S. speed skating stars, like Heather Bergsma, Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, started their careers on inline skates, and it’s a very common for top inline athletes to transition to ice in pursuit of their Olympic dream.
But Boutiette was one of the first to do so, and is considered the “godfather” of inline to ice skaters.
“Man, my entire career I’ve been at a disadvantage. I was always the smallest and when skating on the old roller skates, they were so heavy that my little legs could barely lift them up. But I always fought my way through the pack and found a way to win a few here and there. On the ice, a guy in Southern California told me that I would never make it. This prick was one reason when I started getting good I could throw it in his face. But this prick taught me something in the process: never talk shit to someone if you don’t know who they are and or what they are capable of.” — KC Boutiette on challenges he’s faced in his skating career
Off the ice
In addition to training and competing, Boutiette owns Rocket7, a business that makes custom cycling shoes.
“It’s hard to run a business and train at the same time,” he said. “It’s hard but I have good people around me who do what they can to help me with my skating.” In his downtime during competitions, he often works on artwork for his shoes or responds to business-related emails.
His biggest support is his wife, Kristi.
“My wife Kristi is my rock, though. She does everything for me and keeps me rolling… Not only is she the bread winner in our family but she cooks and does everything for all of us all the time. We call her ‘my sponsor’!”
They have two children, five-year-old son Braam (whose name is the Dutch word for a burr on a speed skate) and two-year-old daughter Brooke, who has a chromosome condition called 1P36 deletion that affects her lungs, hearing and heart.
“Sometimes I just want to take care of my kids and help [Kristi] out,” Boutiette says, “but she reminds me that I need to get out and do what I need to do. It’s hard to see her doing so much. And a lot of people will never know how much this woman does on a daily basis.”