Kearns • Lap after lap, day after day, Stephen Paul looks up and hopes he’ll soon see the orange, green and white stripes of the Indian flag high above his head.
In his four and a half years training at the Utah Olympic Oval, he’s moved from an inline skating background to learning speedskating to training six to eight hours per day for a shot at the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
His dream, born on wheels in his native India and honed on the ice that hosted the world’s best in 2002, is to earn that flag hanging from the rafters by competing at the highest levels of the sport in the 500 and 1,000 meter events and more importantly — becoming the first Indian to skate in an Olympic race.
“That‘s what dreams are all about, right? You don’t put a limit toward it,” Paul said. “I had a thought about whether I could do it or not, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to be the first person to do it.”
He started as an inline skater in 2005 and rose to the top of the sport in India before emailing 2002 1,500 meter gold medalist Derek Parra in 2012 about transitioning from inline to ice.
Parra took him on as a pupil after Paul was granted a U.S. athletic visa and he’s slowly shaved six seconds off his 500 meter time, now hovering around 36.5 seconds — just beyond the 35.7 second barrier to qualify for the Olympic Games. The 1,000 meter requirement is 1:10.5.
Paul already has the times to compete in World Cup mass start — an event new to the Games for PyeongChang that features up to 24 skaters competing in a 16-lap race for sprint points — but wants to focus on his preferred events of the 500 and 1,000 meter races.
“Everybody across the world comes to Salt Lake because it‘s the fastest ice and the best training center in the world,” he said.
Paul’s quest for PyeongChang rests on first reaching World Cup time standards and then Olympic time standards. He’ll have a chance to meet the World Cup requirement at four events sprinkled throughout the fall, held at his home track and in Calgary. If he clears that bar, four World Cup events await in the Netherlands, Norway, Calgary and Salt Lake City in November and December to leap the final hurdle on the way to South Korea.
Paul’s coach, Tucker Fredricks, is a retired speedskating veteran of three Olympic Games and a 30-time medalist at World Cup events. He has helped bring Paul up from the club level to where he is now and praised his pupil’s ”drive.”
“After the last couple of years, he‘s really made some big improvements,” Fredricks said. ”It seems like each year, he’ll take something and do it 100 percent better.”
Fredricks wants Paul to work on his consistency of translating technique from practice to the higher speeds and intensity of competitive races. He said it’s ”not going to be easy” for Paul to make the field of a maximum 180 skaters in PyeongChang — but that his long-term potential is bright.
“If he sticks with it for a couple more years, not just through this year, but the next four or five years, I think he could be a really good speedskater,” Fredricks said.
Paul misses his home and family, but has surrounded himself with Salt Lake City’s Indian community for support amid the growing pressure of representing his country on an international stage.
“There‘s about 8,000 to 10,000 Indians here and everybody wants to see me at the Games, everybody wants to see me medal,” he said.
He wants to be the catalyst for future Indians to take up speedskating careers and believes his country has a deep well of untapped potential that ”can really dominate the world one day.”
Until that day, he’ll look forward to getting that flag hung high above the sheet of ice in Utah that he hopes will propel him into the Olympic history books.
“I just want to give it my best shot for India,” Paul said. ”I want to inspire people. I don‘t want to be the last Indian on ice.”