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February 6, 2014

Native grandson: U.S. men’s speedskater has family ties in Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — One of his biggest fans won’t be among them, but U.S. long-track speedskater Joey Mantia will have a considerable pocket of Terre Haute supporters as he competes next week in the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia.

You might say he’s a native grandson.

Barbara Jean Connor of Terre Haute passed away Jan. 15, falling a month short of seeing Mantia represent his country.

“She always said, ‘I hope I live long enough to see [Joey] skate in the Olympics,” said Kelly Bonini — Barbara’s daughter, Joey’s mother — earlier this week.

It isn’t like his grandmother didn’t get to share some great moments with Mantia, however. His is one of the more` interesting stories of these Games, which are certainly not his first experience in international competition.

“It’s not completely foreign to me,” is how Mantia put it in a telephone interview with the Tribune-Star from Sochi earlier this week.

The Ocala, Fla., native is a relative newcomer to speedskating — apparently there wasn’t that much ice in his hometown — but there are other ways to skate.

Mantia won 28 world titles for inline skating, including a pair of gold medals at the 2003 Pan American Games, another gold at the 2007 Pan American Games and two world championships in competition in Colombia in 2010. He was named American Speed Skater three times in a row from 2005 through 2007 and was named the Elmer Ringeisen Sportsmanship Award winner in 2007.

“[Inline skating] is big in all the other countries,” Bonini said diplomatically when an interviewer was surprised to learn all this.

Two years ago, Mantia took to the ice, which gives him a chance to be better known by this time next week, although that wasn’t his motivation.

“It’s not for recognition,” Mantia said. “I’d just spent long enough on inline. I had a career for 10 years, and became a little bit redundant.

“It’s like a promotion at work,” he continued. “I wanted a new challenge, a change of scenery.”

“He had a lot of training,” said Bonini of her son, who became a professional skater when he was 17. “He missed 42 days of school [training or competing] his senior year [at Vanguard High School in Ocala] and still got high honors.”

Mantia got his change of scenery by moving from Florida to Salt Lake City to train on the ice, and he’s been on the European speedskating circuit most of this winter.

The best known speedskater for the U.S. team is probably Shani Davis, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the 1,000-meter race and a two-time silver medalist at 1,500 meters. Those are also Mantia’s two events, and Mantia beat Davis in December at 1,500 meters in the Berlin World Cup.

“I’m not here [in Sochi] just to be a participant,” Mantia said this week. “I feel I know what it takes, and I’ll put it all on the line the day of the race.”

The men’s 1,000-meter race is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday — that’s 6 p.m. in Sochi — and the men’s 1,500 meters will be run at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 15. Two skaters race at a time, switching lanes with each other on every lap of the 400-meter track, and places are determined by their time. No heats to feel out the competition, no way to know how fast you have to go.

“It was a rough transition,” said Mantia, noting that inline skating was more like a track meet, with all the competitors racing at the same time. “I was new to this format of racing. … You have one chance to lay down the fastest time. There’s nowhere to hide if you’re having a bad day.”

Whenever Mantia races next week will be a good day for Bonini — a Terre Haute North Vigo High School graduate who is in Terre Haute helping settle her mother’s affairs — and for the family of her brother, Mike Auler.

Mantia won’t get to see his Terre Haute relatives for quite some time — “Our season continues [overseas] after the Olympics,” he said — but he’s enjoying where he is. (It’s considerably warmer in Sochi, for one thing.)

“Russia is not bad,” he said. “It seems pretty safe — but of course we’re inside the Olympic bubble all the time.”

The country is even helping him celebrate a milestone, he told his mother.

“He turns 28 [today],” Bonini said, “and he told me, ‘Russia is giving me a big birthday present — the opening ceremonies.’ ”

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