BEIJING — Corinne “Corie” Stoddard pressed hard on her right skate, lunging forward and hoping for the best as she glided across the finish line buried under a couple inches of clear ice. Decked out in the stars and stripes, she cruised at 25 mph across the line, concluding another race at her debut Olympics.
The extra lunge was for naught. A pair of opponents from the Netherlands and Korea glided through the same line a tenth of a second faster. Behind Stoddard, American teammate Maame Biney and a skater representing Hungary cruised in about a second later.
Stoddard took a deep breath, sighed and smiled, skating over to Biney for a fist bump.
“I’m really happy to get eighth place at my first Olympics,” Stoddard said of her finish in the 1,000-meter race that night. “It was a really stacked event with an Olympic champion, a world-record holder and also other really good skaters.”
The 20-year-old Federal Way native, who grew up skating at Pattison’s West, has needed that kind of optimism this month in China as she’s navigated adverse circumstances both on and off the ice.
Qualifying for the Olympics is a feat in itself, but physically making it there and staying healthy enough to compete has been another significant hurdle to clear.
Fully vaccinated U.S. athletes like Stoddard needed to record their temperature and answer “no” to a survey of several symptoms on a Beijing 2022 mobile app each day in the two weeks before they left for China.
Then, they had to show proof of at least two negative COVID-19 tests within four days of flying to Beijing for Chinese authorities to let them in. The tests had to be PCRs — the cotton-swab-in-your-nose kind that can take a couple of days to have the results processed.
The toughest part of it all? The athletes could only get tested at Chinese-owned labs in the United States, which had been approved by local Chinese consulates.
“It was a little bizarre at first trying to figure out all the things we needed to do and find the right labs,” Stoddard said. “But thankfully the team has people that helped us take care of it all.”
China cut off commercial flights from the United States just weeks before the opening ceremony, but Olympic organizers offered charter flights for American athletes and staffers. A stop in Tokyo and a four-hour layover made for a 20-hour journey to Beijing from Los Angeles late last month.
Support staff and customs officials — decked out in white scrubs from head to toe, clear face shields and masks that covered every part of their face except their eyes — awaited Stoddard and teammates at the Beijing airport. The host officials tucked the sleeves of their scrubs into latex gloves covering their hands. The pant legs of their scrubs were also tucked into latex, covered by thick black boots.
Stoddard never aspired to be an actor growing up. But she admitted feeling like she was on the set of a sci-fi movie.
“Even by COVID standards this was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” she said. “But I guess they’re just trying to be extra cautious.”
Another COVID-19 swab, this one skinny and long to fit as far down a nasal cavity as seemingly possible, awaited Stoddard at customs. The test was the most uncomfortable of any she’d had in two years since the pandemic started.
Since then, it’s been smoother sailing. Athletes have to wear masks in the Olympic Village and take a daily throat swab at a booth right outside the front door of their apartment.
Basically, before they can go anywhere each day, a local Olympic staffer donning the same extravagant outfit as the airport officials has to make sure they don’t have the virus.
A broken nose and a world-record skate
Stoddard’s time on the ice in Beijing has somehow managed to rival the theatrics and drama of her journey to the Olympics. Some of her half-dozen races so far in Beijing have been otherworldly even by short-track standards — a sport known for being chaotic and unpredictable.
She began her first night at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium as a wide-eyed newcomer, eager to make her Olympic debut. She ended the night as a battle-tested hero, having earned the respect of teammates.
On Feb. 5 in the women’s 500-meter prelims, Stoddard stumbled and fell, unimpeded, halfway through her first race. She careened into a padded area surrounding the ice rink, smashing her face against it and breaking her nose.
“Definitely some nerves on the first skate,” she said. “But falling and then feeling the pain in my nose was a real wake-up call.”
Undeterred, Stoddard skated less than an hour later for the U.S. mixed relay team, nearly earning the Americans a medal.
“To do that was so courageous,” said U.S. teammate Kristen Santos, who also skated in the mixed relay. “It speaks to the kind of teammate and competitor that Corie is.”
“We really needed her that night and she totally came through,” Biney added.
Stoddard wears a bulky white medicated bandage on her nose throughout the day to numb the pain. She can’t feel anything with the bandage on, but endures the pain when she takes it off to skate.
In Friday’s 1,000-meter quarterfinals, Stoddard experienced her second “Welcome to the Olympics” moment, which fortunately was significantly more pleasant than the first.
Wearing her same stars and stripes uniform with a white No. 32 on her helmet, Stoddard posted the third-fastest time of the 20 women left in the quarters. But the two women to skate faster were in the same heat, and one of them — Suzanne Schulting of the Netherlands — set the 1,000-meter world record.
“It was crazy to be a part of that,” Stoddard said. “I was a little disappointed because by the time I got into third there was such a big gap that I couldn’t close on the world-record pace. But it’s OK, it’s short-track so racing is more important than times.”
‘A wild ride’
After falling short of the medal stand again in Saturday’s women’s relay finals, Stoddard will skate in Wednesday’s 1,500 meter event — her last competition in Beijing. Santos and either Eunice Lee of Bellevue or 21-year-old Julie Letai will also represent the U.S. in the race.
Barring an Olympic miracle, Stoddard won’t bring home any hardware when she returns stateside next week. But the dramatic start to her Olympic career and an eighth-place finish in the 1,000 meters has made every COVID swab, nose bandage and minute of traveling so far completely worth it.
“It has been a wild ride, for sure,” she said. “But we have a strong, young team and we’re going to be even stronger in the next Olympics.”