The Great Rabbino has had the pleasure of interviewing a variety of Jewish athletes— professional wrestlers, major league baseball players, and sports broadcasters. Today I bring you an interview with Tani Mintz, a speedskater who is trying to qualify for the Olympics. Tani is an old friend of mine from way back in the day. Besides being a great athlete, she is a nice Jewish girl. Below is my interview with her:
The Great Rabbino: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with speedskating?
Tani Mintz: My name is Netanya Shira Mintz, I’m 25 years old, and am extremely proud to say I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I went to private Jewish school my whole life until junior year of high school when I switched to public school. Athletics and sports have always been essential in my life. I was a diehard Michael Jordan fan since I can remember. (The two of us even used to hang out at the Multiplex when the Bulls practiced there! OK, maybe not hang out, but he knew my name and I hugged his knee.) In junior high I played basketball and ran track. I also ran track at the Maccabi Games in 1998 and 2001 and earned a total of 12 medals: 3 bronze, 5 silver, and 4 gold. And in 1999 I played basketball at the Maccabi Games, and despite having a team of 6 (yes, 6 players total on our team!), we finished in a strong 4th place.
I started speedskating much later in life relative to other speedskaters. When I was 17 my family and I went to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics. We all had tickets to see alpine skiing events because we are a family of skiers, but I really wanted to see a short track speed skating event as well. Admittedly, I totally bought into the Apolo Ohno hype and was super excited at the opportunity to see him live. It was at the Delta Center one night during the Olympics, watching Apolo win the gold that changed my life forever. I knew I wanted to be a part of the Olympics. Now that I had experienced what it was to be a part of the crowd, feeding off the athletes the energy, I wanted to taste it for myself. I decided I would be an Olympian one day. I would pursue speedskating the second I got home to Chicago, and I would somehow make it happen.
TGR: What was in like to try out for the Olympics?
TM: When I first began speed skating in 2002 the thought of competing in Olympic Trials was right up there on the “cool” meter behind actually competing in the Olympics. I remember the day in 2005 when I qualified to skate in the 2006 Olympic Trials. It was a blur of emotion because it didn’t sink in when I crossed the line and saw my qualifying time. It didn’t even sink in when I told myself “Hey, you just qualified to skate in the 2006 US Speedskating Olympic Trials.” It sunk in when my coach skated by me and said, “Congratulations. You will be skating in Olympic Trials.” What takes many skaters a decade or more of hard work to accomplish took me a short four years – albeit a daily routine of intensive training, full-time schoolwork, and a little Starbucks on the side, but a short four years nonetheless.
Two months later in December, I skated my fastest races ever at the 2006 US Speedskating Olympic Trials. Not fast enough to make the team, but that didn’t matter (well, I can say that now, of course at the time I was a little disappointed). It didn’t matter because I realized sometime during that competition that I truly was capable of fulfilling my Olympic dreams. I had just proved to myself that hard work and dedication will lead you to success. As long as I was in control of my life the Olympic Games would be mine one day. The 2006 Olympic Trials was just another opportunity to gain some competitive experience, so that next time I would be even more prepared.
Fast forward four years later and I’m at the starting line of the 2010 US Speedskating Olympic Trials. The past four years had felt the most uncertain and unstable of my life. The only thing I learned to expect from life was the unexpected. Having only known a world of constants and stability, I decided to redirect my path along one with more certain outcomes. I retired from speedskating in 2007 and pursued law school. Slowly but surely the competitive fire came back and with a vengeance. After being accepted to a couple law schools, I decided to put that avenue on hold and come back to speed skating. In September of 2008, I moved to Utah to train with no expectations of qualifying for any national, let alone international, competitions the next couple years. Three weeks later I qualified for every single national competition between September 2008 and March of 2010… including the 2010 US Olympic Trials. I also finished 3rd overall. Again, I didn’t place high enough or skate fast enough to make the Olympic Team, but I did renew my sense of confidence that the Olympics will be mine… next time.
TGR: Are you hopefully for 2014?
TGR: What do you do in when you are not skating?
TM: I don’t train on Thursdays and Sundays, so those are the days I usually work 5:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. at Starbucks. (Yes, on my off days I wake up at 5 a.m.) To be honest though, Starbucks doesn’t feel like a job. It’s my social life! And there’s no better place to be at 5:30 a.m. than a coffee shop. And when I’m not at Starbucks or training I’m devoting all of my attention to the cutest, cuddliest, and craziest puppy in the world – Capone.
TGR: What are some of the coolest/most interesting experiences you have had because of skating?
TM: Another loaded question! Where to begin? I remember my first race in Salt Lake City. I was trying to qualify for the 2003 Junior Nationals. My best shot was in the 1000m. I signed up for time trials that weekend. Saturday rolls around and I take a look at the pair sheet. Chris Witty – Inner Lane, Netanya Mintz – Outer Lane. Are you kidding me? My first race ever in Salt Lake City and I’m paired with the Olympic gold medalist and world record holder in the 1000m? How cool and ridiculous was that? I told myself, “Just keep her in your line of vision and you know you’ll be having a good race!” She did stay in my line of vision (barely), but I just missed the qualifying time by a couple seconds. Oh well! Cool experience!
Speedskating also took me to Torino, Italy in 2007 for the World University Games. Skating on another Olympic track (even if it was a year late!), was very inspirational. Not to mention the cool opening ceremonies I participated in that felt like a mini-version of what to expect some years down the road…
But probably the most interesting experience I’ve had because of speed skating actually has nothing to do with, well, speed skating. In 2005 Starbucks began an Elite Athlete Program. Long story short, I became their sponsored athlete. When I retired from speed skating in 2007 I asked Starbucks to please keep me involved in any future endeavors they pursue regarding health and wellness. Passion for my sport may have dwindled, but passion for maintaining a healthy lifestyle never has and never will. Starbucks realized my dedication to health and wellness and in May of 2008 called on me to participate in the Nike+ 10k Human Race – a race held on August 31, 2008, hosted in 25 cities around the world to benefit three global charities. They wanted me to be Chicago’s ambassador to the program. Starbucks partnered with Nike in promoting the race, and Starbucks assigned me the duty of getting as many people in Chicago to run the race as possible. Through micro-chipped bracelets and shoe sensors and Nike+ iPods, Chicago racked up the most miles out of the 40 U.S. cities participating in the Starbucks’ competition. Because my city won, Starbucks selected me to fly with Nike on their privately chartered Air New Zealand jet to Melbourne, Australia on August 29, 2008, to run the race on August 31 at 8:31 a.m., and then I immediately jump back on the jet and flew to LA to run the last leg of the worldwide race beginning at 8:31 p.m. This all took place in one day. Totally awesome one-of-a-kind never to be duplicated again experience!
TGR: What will life look like after skating?
TM: What will life look like after skating? First, can I focus on what life will look like tomorrow? I have no idea what’s in store for me post-speed skating. I’m sure furthering my education is in my future somewhere. And as of now I intend on settling down in Chicago again, one day… one day… But ah… so many, many things to do before I can commit to one plan, one career, one city.
TGR: Has Judaism ever played a role in your sport? Has there ever been a conflict?
TM: The biggest conflict I experience regarding Judaism and my commitment to training happens only on Yom Kippur. I’ve never been shomer shabbos, so racing on a Saturday morning has never been an issue for me. But since I began speedskating Yom Kippur has always been the one holiday where I feel most connected to my religion. This is probably because while training I am unable to properly acknowledge the Holy Day – the full 24 hours is a constant reminder of what Jewish laws I am not obeying for the sake of pursuing my dreams. Although friends and family would never judge me for the religious decisions I make, especially on Yom Kippur, I can’t help but judge myself. I guess, ironically, Yom Kippur ends up being exactly what it is meant to be— a day of atonement. I constantly question my decisions on Yom Kippur and battle with myself whether to forego training that morning to go to synagogue, or to stay on track and not lose sight of my goal— not even for a mere few hours at synagogue once a year. Training has always won that battle, but at the heavy expense of extreme guilt the days leading up to and the day of Yom Kippur.
TGR: You are from Chicago, so what are some of your favorite spots to skate, dine, and hang out?
TM: I love this question: ESPN Zone. Niketown. Millenium Park. Whether I’m home for a week or just a day, these three Chicago landmarks are essential to every visit. Ahhhh… thinking about them now makes me feel nostalgic.
If you want to support Netanya for the 2014 Olympics you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Tani. Best of luck.
And Let Us Say…Amen.