With the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver just a little over four months out, Nike brought a group of journalists last week to the gleaming Canadian city to check out their female athletes' intensive training as they prep for possible Olympic stardom.
In addition to presentations on apparel and shoe launches, journalists at the Women's Training Summit got coveted one-on-one time with eight amazing estrogen-powered athletes. Set in the Vancouver Olympic Center/Vancouver Paralympic Center and the brand-new, sustainable-minded Oval Center, we already have Olympic fever.
Compared to its competitors, Nike's history supporting female athletes is unparalleled as far as breadth and influence. It all goes back to 1984, when Nike sponsored Joan Benoit Samuelson in the first women's marathon race of the Olympics passed the finish line with a gold medal.
Nike's umbrella covers the pro down to the college level, where the number of girls it supports can run to 27,000 female athletes in just one season.
The athletes at the conference represented a cross-section of winter sports, from skeleton to curling, and each of them has an incredible biography of accomplishments, some of which they garnered even in the face of personal hardships. We hear from 17-year-old pairs figure skater Keuna McLaughlin, Olympic gold medalist skier Julia Mancuso, two-time Olympic bronze medalist speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez and two-time World Cup skeleton race winner Katie Uhlaender.
Read the interview with the women after the jump
KEUNA MCLAUGHLIN, FIGURE SKATER
What kind of training do you do to make your sport look so effortless on the ice?
Being a pair girl, I have to stay pretty tiny and work on not building so much bulk. I do a lot of cardio, pilates and I also have to eat right. It's a lot of mental and physical training.
Tell us about the technical fabrics in your training apparel and how they help you perform better.
I wear a lot of lycra in my costumes. They're breathable and light. My Nike Dri-Fit is very skin-tight and there's not a lot moving around. That's what I need to train in order to do my elements successfully, because my skating partner Rockne Brubaker is always holding me, grabbing my waist and hips, so there can't be a lot of slippage.
How long did it take you two to build up that trust in each another?
We've been together for three-and-a-half years, so we've learned about each other inside and out. He's definitely like my brother. When we fight or argue under our breaths because we don't want our coach to hear, we can get over it in two minutes because we have the same goal in mind.
What's your dream program?
I love our long program (to which we're skating at the Olympics)—I love skating to "Slumdog Millionaire."
JULIA MANCUSO, ALPINE SKI RACER
Start us off with your training regimen.
Our season is really long. We have anywhere from 34 to 38 world cups. Sometimes there are three or four races per week. In the winter, it's mostly recovery work, so to mentally prepare myself I have to train and get as strong as I can in the summer.
What about your training gear?
For skiing we just need to have a thin but warm base layer underneath our downhill suits. With training shoes, it's important to have a different shoe for the workouts—a good running shoe, a good weight-lifting shoe. Also, since I live in Hawaii, it's humid, so it's nice to have a good wicking fabric.
You're involved in three charities. How do they relate to your interests?
What's so great about Right to Play is that they teach you that it doesn't have to be so much a sport to be playing a sport; it can also be educational games where you don't need a ball. It was really amazing to go experience what they're doing firsthand when I was in Tanzania. Climate change is something always on my mind as a skier. We're lucky because the last two seasons were pretty good but the overall trend is that the snow's melting faster and faster every year. The World Wildlife Fund was always my favorite as a kid…so it was a natural evolution [for me to join them] when they started their Climate Change program. I also do Liv, which is my sister's non-profit, and her job is to supply medical supplies to Oaxaca, Mexico.
Many female athletes have brothers or fathers who encouraged them to pursue sports, but in your family of all girls, who gave you that push?
We were a competitive group of girls. Whether it was your height on the wall, how long your legs were or where your butt came to when you were back to back, it was always something. My mom's one of five sisters too. It's been all tomboys. My mom was a gymnast. My older sister [encouraged me], she was four years older.
What do you think about being in a once-male-dominated sport that has a long history of female competitors? Women are getting more respect and we definitely have a good fan base. I feel really lucky to be in a sport that's exactly equal. We have an equal amount of start numbers, races, prize money. In snowboarding, there might only be 32 men but only 16 women. When I'm out there ski racing, there are 30 girls that can win the race. It's really competitive and I think it's great.
JENNIFER RODRIGUEZ, LONG-TRACK SPEED SKATER
What kind of suit do you wear?
Nike makes our skin suits, and they're made of a rubber material. Our suits are not the most comfortable because they're designed to be in the crouch position, like in speed skating position. But they are by far the fastest suits, so when you're in that crouch position and you're skating, you feel super sleek.
At 33 years old, you're reentering the sport after experiencing a big disappointment at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. What has that been like?
It's been quite a challenge. When I retired in 2006, I lost a lot of my muscle mass and 10 pounds, and I'm now trying to gain that back. But I'm using my experience and I'm listening to my body more than I once was, and things are coming back slowly. I'm skating faster than at any point last year, so I know things are going in the right direction.
What are you bringing to the sport as a result of your comeback?
To myself, it's experience. I'm bringing back the fire that I once had years ago. Now I'm a smarter athlete than I was 10 years ago, even five years ago. I'm better at listening to myself rather than being stubborn and just "I gotta train, train, train." As for my teammates—I have a bunch of a girls on my team—I don't go out of my way to help them, but I really do give them as much advice as I can. I'm trying not to mentor but help them out because they are the next generation.
KATIE UHLAENDER, SKELETON RACER
How do you train for skeleton racing?
Our sport depends on velocity, momentum. So the start is key; 60 percent of your momentum going down the track is your start. We train like track athletes. I do a ton of sprints, a ton of lifting.
Did your father, the late major league outfielder Ted Uhlaeder, treat you differently than the athletes he coached or played with? I think he held me to a higher standard than he held himself. Anyone who met those expectations, he viewed them in a certain way, and for me to be in that circle was a huge feat.
What does Nike's sponsorship of you do for such a sport that has so few women athletes in it? The great thing about Nike is that they don't really make it about one gender or the other; they show that people need to get active, be strong, to just do it. They take pride in whoever they're representing. It's great they keep it equal. When you have an even playing field, we women naturally have to step up.
What's running through your mind as you're going through the track? I don't even know how to describe it. When I get on the line, I don't think. I'm flushing every thought out of my head and I'm using every emotion from that week. I'm taking all those emotions and pushing them down to the pit of my stomach and when it's time to go, i explode out of the blocks. Because in our sport, if you think, it's too late.