On the second day of U.S. Olympic Trials in short track speed skating, Connecticut native Kristen Santos became the first skater to clinch a spot on the U.S. team for the Beijing Winter Games.
After winning both the first 500m and 1500m on Friday, Santos secured her Olympic roster spot with a win in the second 1500m on Saturday (video embedded above). All three individual Olympic distances – 500m, 1000m, 1500m – are contested twice during the three-day competition.
Members of Santos’s family, holding cardboard cutouts of Kristen’s face and a sign reading “Go Fast, Turn Left!” jumped up and down in the stands after she crossed the line first.
“It’s really overwhelming right now,” Santos told NBC Olympics reporter Andrea Joyce. “I’m really glad my family is all here to go through it with me.”
Because the U.S. qualified a women’s relay team for Beijing, five female skaters will be named to the U.S. Olympic short track team when Trials conclude on Sunday.
In addition to Santos (107 points after four races), 2018 Olympian Maame Biney (71 points), Corinne Stoddard (63 points), and Julie Letai (55 points) are all in a strong position heading into the final two races. Athletes on the bubble include Eunice Lee (23 points), Kamryn Lute (10 points), and Hailey Choi (6 points).
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Four years after scary injury, Santos will make Olympic debut in 2022
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will mark Santos’s Olympic debut, four years after she just missed out.
In November 2017, Santos was competing at a World Cup in Shanghai, China, when a competitor’s skate sliced open her left hand, cutting tendons in her hand and wrist. She immediately flew back to the United States to have surgery and was off the ice for over two weeks.
One month later, with very limited preparation and a cast on her arm, Santos managed to finish fourth overall at U.S. Olympic Trials. A fourth-place finish would have been good enough for a roster spot if only the U.S. had qualified a women’s relay team. But instead, Santos found herself on the outside looking in.
“I think that honestly just made me more motivated for this Olympic cycle and also kind of made me realize the mindset that I need to be in to perform right,” Santos told OlympicTalk.
Santos grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, where her introduction to the ice came via figure skating and then ice hockey, in which she was the only girl on her team. She made the transition to short track speed skating at age nine, with her first lessons taking place at Yale University’s famed “Yale Whale.”
Given the tactical nature of short track speed skating, the best athletes from any given country typically train together. So after graduating from Fairfield Warde High School, Santos decided to move to the U.S. hub in Salt Lake City and enrolled at the University of Utah.
In the four years since her near-miss at 2018 U.S. Olympic Trials, Santos has developed into the best hope the U.S. has for a short track speed skating medal in Beijing.
Earlier this fall at a World Cup competition at the Olympic venue in Beijing, the 25-year-old became the first U.S. woman to record two podium finishes in a single World Cup event in nearly a decade.
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After the first day of racing at 2022 U.S. Olympic Trials, Santos revealed that she contemplated pulling out of the competition.
“I was debating racing this weekend because I have an issue with my boot,” Santos said. “Just a pressure point that’s very, very sensitive. But it’s feeling a lot better today.”
Santos could have petitioned for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, which likely would have been accepted given her World Cup results in recent months, but said she wanted to earn her spot with an on-ice performance.
At this February’s Winter Olympics, Santos could become the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in short track speed skating since the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC
The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report.