For short track speed skater Kristen Santos, the moment she realized she didn’t make the 2018 U.S. Olympic team was the moment she knew going to the Olympics wasn’t actually her dream at all.
Her dream was to win an Olympic medal.
Four years later, the 27-year-old from Fairfield, Conn., will not only get her shot in February at the upcoming Winter Games, but she could contend for a medal in her Olympic debut. Santos holds the U.S. record in the 500m and 1000m, and she heads to China off a breakout World Cup season, where she opened with two bronze medals in the 1000m and 1500m in the same venue that will be used for the Games next month. She followed up a week later by securing her first career World Cup gold, winning the 1000m in Nagoya, Japan.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to be an Olympian; the goal was to go to the Olympics, be an Olympian,” Santos said in a recent episode of the On Her Turf podcast. “But four years ago, just missing the team, really made me change that goal and dream from being an Olympian to being an Olympic medalist.”
Santos’ two podium finishes in Beijing marked the first time in nearly decade that a U.S. woman stood on the short track podium twice in a single World Cup, while her victory in Japan marked the first gold by any American in four years, the first individual U.S. victory in seven years and the first by an American woman in nearly 10 years.
Santos appeared to be on track to make the team four years ago when she suffered a gruesome hand injury during a practice session at a 2017 World Cup in Shanghai just one month before the Olympic Trials. A competitor’s skate sliced open her left hand and wrist, and Santos originally was told she would not be able to compete.
“Since I had already experienced losing Olympic Trials, I had already went through this sadness of — before it even happened — of having lost, having not made the team,” recalls Santos, who’s been on skates since she was 3 years old and started skating short track at age 9. “And then when I found out that I could skate, that I had to wear this arm cast, that I had to have people tie my skates for me, dress me… At that moment I had absolutely nothing to lose going into trials, so I was able to skate without the pressure and without putting pressure on myself.”
ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Kristen Santos qualifies for first Olympic team
Fresh off surgery and wearing a cast, relying on her boyfriend (now fiancé) Travis Griswold to tie her skates, Santos defied expectations and placed fourth, missing the Olympic team by one spot.
“I think right then and there I had realized, even if I had made the team, the way I was skating at that moment, I wasn’t going to make a difference at the Games, I wasn’t going to win,” she reveals. “But that pushed me so much further these past four years, to know that that’s what I really want. I don’t want to just go to the Olympics to go to the Olympics. I want to go, and I want to be a competitor there, and I want to make a difference. I want to be in the mix of things — and I want a medal.”
To that end, Santos took a cue from her own playbook: She adopted that “nothing-to-lose” mentality that got her fired up at those 2018 Olympic Trials, and she also put in the work, training full-time with the U.S. team in Salt Lake City while earning her degree in kinesiology from the University of Utah.
“I know that even when I’m very tired and I want to give up, even it’s that one extra lap that I can get in, that’s going to give me the confidence I need and the extra boost that I need to be able to do this,” she said. “That one lap every single day — that’s 365 extra laps a year. That little extra bit every day makes such a big difference when it’s all put together and I think that’s really made me get this big jump forward.”
Santos also credits her teammates, Maame Biney, Corinne Stoddard and Julie Letai, for her added motivation and confidence. The foursome set a U.S. record and qualified the relay together for Games, marking the first time since 2010 that the U.S. will field a women’s relay team.
“Us girls on the team have developed such a good relationship that we genuinely want each other to do well, we genuinely want each other to pick each other up when we’re feeling down, help each other get faster,” said Santos, who also will have her teammates next to her as bridesmaids at her August wedding. “When they go fast, I want to go fast, too.”
(The full interview with short track speed skater Kristen Santos is embedded above. You can also listen to the On Her Turf podcast on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.)