I traveled to the Pettit Center in Milwaukee, home of DASH, to learn about competing, coaching, and leading from two speedskating legends. Bonnie Blair Cruikshank is one of the most successful Olympic athletes of all time, having won five Olympic speedskating golds and countless other medals and championships. Dave Cruikshank was also an Olympian, a world champion, and one of the elite skaters in the world. This husband and wife duo inspired a generation of Olympic athletes. They continue to take the lead in promoting speedskating and Olympic sports in the United States and beyond. DASH is a premier training organization that prepares highest-level athletes to reach peak performance. I sat with Bonnie and Dave in the DASH training space – located on the second level of the Pettit – to learn from these remarkable people.
On this SGG episode, we discussed:
1. Dave’s early and ongoing attraction to speedskating: “I liked going fast. And I still like going fast.”
2. The mentoring that occurred across generations in the U.S. speedskating community – leading to many Olympians and world champions.
3. The impact Olympian Cathy Priestner had on Bonnie’s early path in the sport. “She took me under her wing…It was a neat building of a great friendship…That relationship was a very big part of my journey.”
4. Bonnie training pretty much on her own in Champaign, IL during her early days on the U.S. team.
5. How and when Bonnie knew she had to make coaching changes during her career.
6. Dave being coached by a 4-time Olympian in Northbrook.
7. Dave: “I didn’t really start training until I was 16. I was on my first Olympic team at 18.”
8. Coaching rule of thumb: “If we get hit by a bus, you should be able to take care of yourself. Our job is to educate you and give you as much knowledge and information on technique, training, sleep, nutrition, and preparation as we can. We will help guide you, but it’s your journey.”
9. His athletes keep journals. (What’s in the journals?)
10. Bonnie on the lack of performance training research: “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”
11. Why a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as pre-race meal made sense for Bonnie. (insights from special ops leaders)
12. The importance of getting to know your athletes.
13. Coach and athlete as “caddy-player relationship.”
14. “How can you get the most out of your players if you don’t know them?! It’s staggering to us that that communication is not taking place in a lot of sports.”
15. Cybernetics testing: Bonnie and Dave’s two tests were the hardest they’d ever done. Why? “Because we can hurt. We can take a lot of stuff. We put up with a lot to get where we want to go…If I know I want to race really well, I know there’s some stuff I have to do to hurt mentally and physically.”
16. Right-sizing commitment and sacrifice in sport. Bonnie: “If you want to take it to the absolute levels, there’s absolute commitment.” Constantly “checking ourselves” when it comes to deciding how hard to push.
17. Dave’s early goals: D-1 soccer and pro soccer. Didn’t have concrete Olympic aspirations until six months before his first Olympic trials.
18. Bonnie: “I think my dad saw something in me.”
19. In her third race (ever!), Bonnie placed 8th in the Olympic trials.
20. Bonnie: “We never went on family vacations…We went to Chicago every weekend for races…That’s what we did as a family. I never knew anything different…Skating was the thing that I loved the most.”
21. The importance of gradually working up to intensive immersion in the sport: “I never had too much too soon. I look at some athletes (who start too soon) get burnt out and then they’re done…Because it was on a gradual basis, I didn’t retire until my 31st birthday…And I still loved what I did…I still love to go skate!”
22. The competitive foundations Bonnie always had at home. “My sister and I couldn’t go to bed until she won the card game at night!...There was definitely a competitiveness in our household.”
23. The importance of surrounding yourself with a healthy, hard-working group. Dave: “If they’re sacrificing, then you don’t really feel like you’re sacrificing. Because everybody’s doing it…If she’s doing it and these buddies are doing it, then everybody’s doing it. So, then, I’m normal. It didn’t feel like I was in the sacrifice bucket.” Bonnie: “Are there things that we missed? Yes, of course there were. But, on the flip side, we gained so much. It didn’t bother me. I never looked at it that way. I was always positive, looking at what I was gaining instead of what I was losing.”
24. What was Bonnie’s reaction when she saw the East Germans and other top competitors in the world? “That was like fuel for my fire! I was excited to be there. Was it scary? Maybe in a way, but to me, that’s thrilling and exciting. And I want to see how I can be up against them.”
25. When Bonnie first tied an East German, “I had coaches from other countries coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, now we see that we can compete with them.’ And the very next week, I beat them.”
26. Bonnie still gets excited when she sees the top competitors in person. “It’s thrilling and exciting to have the best of the best there…As an athlete, you want the best of the best there. You want to go up against them. You want to see how you fair. That, to me, is the ultimate.”
27. A concern: the move to early sport specialization. The benefits of well-rounded training, especially up through adolescence. “You’re building this huge engine that, once they’re 16, then we can start to put load on that engine.”
28. Doing the stuff that special ops and Navy Seals do to get better.
29. Having multiple coaches in a kid’s life – who are not connected with each other.
30. Mixing up training to “fire up the nervous system to be a better athlete.”
31. What the Pettit Center means to Bonnie and Dave. Bonnie: “We were coming here before there was a room… The blue benches out there are the same blue benches that were in the warm-up houses at the old facility…Our era was part of the reason that this place got built. And that’s pretty cool.” (If you win it, they will build!). “I won the World Sprint Championships here in 1995…There were like 300 family and friends who came here to watch me skate. Some had never seen me skate ever before in person and then would never again see me skate. This place was electric…I’ll never forget that.” “But it was also pretty special to see my daughter compete here at the Olympic trials…For her it was an awesome thing to make the trials. That was pretty special to watch your kid do something that both parents have such a passion for. And now that passion has become her own.”
32. In reflecting upon special moments at the Pettit, Bonnie neglected to mention carrying the 2002 Olympic torch there!
33. Dave: “I feel lucky that the building is here. That we get to do what we do every day…We hope that, through DASH, we can carry this through to the next generations…It’s been high-level people that have come through this building.”
34. Building the sport and the Olympics in Milwaukee. We want to get it back to where, when people drive by they say, “oh, that’s where the Olympians train. That’s where the gold medalists train.
35. Another memory for Bonnie from an early experience in Milwaukee: The impact that Leopolis Mueller’s encouraging words had upon Bonnie during her first Olympic trials. “It’s the trickle-down effect. She (Leopolis) encouraged this little kid (Bonnie) and that sparked that little thing in me, like, ‘wow, I want to do this again. This Olympian, said that to me? Like, who am I? Those are the things that you want one generation to take to the other. It’s priceless.”
Note: After we stopped the recording, I remained at the facility a bit and continued talking with Bonnie and Dave. They showed me around the historic Pettit Center. We looked out over the facility from their office’s second floor balcony. Here, they shared two more especially interesting reflections. First, as we discussed Bonnie’s remarkable gold medal haul, she pointed out that although Dave never found the same level of Olympic success, his experiences – both winning and not winning – may have ultimately helped him develop into a better coach. Bonnie reflected: “He gained empathy and perspective that have served him so well as a coach.” And, a bit later as we discussed what makes great coaches, Dave nodded toward Bonnie and said, “It did not matter who Bonnie’s coach was. It was her.” He was referring to her historic combination of athleticism, commitment, and competitiveness that, regardless of who was coaching her, would have led her to achieve so highly.