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Deaf inline skater switches to ice, aims for Olympics

Michael Hubbs quit skating for a decade before returning to sport

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

When Michael Hubbs charges down an icy track, he can't hear the scrape of his competitors' skates behind him.

That's a disadvantage at elite levels, where top skaters swoop around the competition in quad-powered bursts of speed accompanied by the tell-tale clatter of blade on ice. But for Hubbs, who was born deaf, it's just motivation to hone a new skill set.

"I keep an eye out like a bald eagle," says the 29-year-old graduate of the Texas School for the Deaf. "You've got to watch and pay attention."

Hubbs, who trained as an inline skater as a teenager, has transitioned to the ice with an eye on the 2014 or 2018 Winter Olympics.

He's now training at the Olympic Training Center in Salt Lake City, but zipped through Austin recently, where he attended a fundraiser organized to help get him there. He can't hear, but he speaks and reads lips, occasionally using pen and paper to make things clear.

A promising inline skater, Hubbs was invited to train in Colorado when he was 14, but his father discouraged him, enrolling him at the Texas School for the Deaf instead. Halfway through high school, he quit skating and switched to swimming, the only sport the school offered that appealed to him. He was good at it, too, medaling at the state championships and later swimming for a club team in Dallas.

Hubbs went on to swim for Gallaudet University, setting records while studying business administration. But he wasn't driven to swim like he had been to skate. Then he saw an old inline skating friend, Jordan Malone, on TV, competing at the Vancouver Olympics. Malone won a bronze medal.

"I started thinking about how much I love speed skating," Hubbs says.

At 27, though, he wondered if he was too old to get back into the sport. He hadn't skated in a decade. He'd also gotten involved in drugs, drinking and fighting. "But it has made me a stronger person and more determined with my goals and dreams," he says.

He decided he still had potential, and in March 2010 he laced up his inline skates again.

After just two months of training, he won a bronze medal in the regional championships. A few months later, he captured fourth at a national race. He sped into the pro division, and quickly snagged a silver medal.

It was time to transition to ice, a path already blazed by other inline skaters who'd gone on to race in the Olympics on the ice. He sold everything, including his car, and bought a one-way ticket to the Olympic Training Center in Utah.

When he switched from wheels to blades, he suddenly became a rookie again. But he was skating on the same ice where top speed skaters Shani Davis, Derek Parra, Katherine Reutter and J.R. Celski were training. And some of them had also gone from pavement to ice.

"I couldn't believe I had to start all over again," he says. "It's not the same sport. It seemed similar, but the body form — the way you move — is completely different. In my opinion, the ice is harder than inline."

Improvement came quickly. Parra, who'd also gotten his start on inline skates, coached him. By last summer, Hubbs was smashing his personal best times in the 500-meter, 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter.

And he's still getting faster.

Hubbs craves the speedy, nearly frictionless glide of a frozen surface. "It feels like you're cutting the ice instead of standing on it," he says. "It feels like a knife. It doesn't matter how low you go, you won't fall."

Just maybe, he thinks, he has a shot at making it to the 2014 or 2018 Winter Olympics.

"If you 110 percent believe and put in the effort, then you can surprise the world."

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994