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Ice In Their Veins

Published on December 30, 2013

by Chad Bonham

Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. doesn’t particularly enjoy being labeled a rebel, but she gets it. For the past quarter-century, she’s been doing things quite a bit differently than her peers in the U.S. speedskating community, both in the way she’s competed and coached and how she shares her convictions and faith.

Nancy Swider-Peltz
Nancy Sr. coaching on one of her athletes.

“I don’t coach in the conventional way,” she says. “I am what you call an experiential coach. I coach from feeling. I watch my skaters. I started out my career by actually skating with them. I would feel what they felt. Most coaches come up with an idea and make their athletes do it. I’m a person who wants to understand what they’re feeling.”

That desire to connect with athletes on an emotional level has fueled, on several occasions, her reputation as “anti-establishment.” Bottom line: She has no problem standing up for anyone that she feels isn’t getting a fair shake.

Take for example the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Nancy Sr. was coaching Brian Hansen and her daughter, Nancy Jr. At the time, Nancy Sr. was a private coach, and she contends that the sport’s governing body, United States Speedskating (USS), had a bias against private coaches and would not provide them with credentials.

No credentials, no freedom to be down on the ice with the athletes. But nothing a little creativity, stubbornness and 21st-century technology couldn’t solve.

First, Nancy Sr. asked smaller countries for their credentials, but USS took those away. Next, the president of the International Skating Union personally granted Nancy Sr. a credential, but USS still denied her access to the ice. Finally, at her wit’s end, she racked up a $5,000 cell phone bill by placing phone calls to Hansen and Nancy Jr. so she could coach them through the process.

“I’m a renegade,” Nancy Sr. admits. “But I’m not a rebel for the sake of it. I’m anti-establishment when it’s justified. That’s when I get the reputation of being a little bit crazy. But I will not accept injustice.”

Call her a renegade, or just crazy, Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. competed with the same passion she now displays as a coach. Among her pupils, her son, Jeffrey, and daughter, Nancy Jr., are both the beneficiaries of their mother’s love of Christ and her knowledge of the sport.

“My mom’s not crazy. She just tries to do the right thing,” Jeffrey says. “If a skater is having problems, she tries to help them. She’s going to be a voice for that skater and fight for what’s best for them.”

Nancy Sr.’s fighting spirit is fortified by her passion for Christ and the ice. The driving forces behind the speedskating Swider-Peltz family.

Hall of Fame Mom

Nancy Sr. has dedicated roughly 40 years of her life to speedskating, starting when she was 13 and making her first Olympic team six years later in 1976. Before she was done, she’d qualified for three more Olympic teams (1980, 1984 and 1988).

Nancy Swider-Peltz
Nancy Sr. knows a thing or two about Olympic speedskating. She competed in four Olympics, including the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Along the way she attended Wheaton College, where she met her husband, Jeff, at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting and started a family. Although her Olympic dreams never quite materialized with a medal performance, Nancy Sr. became the first four-time U.S. Winter Olympian, set two world records and was named to the National Speedskating Hall of Fame.

As her competitive skating career seemed to be coming to an end, Nancy Sr. was already transitioning into her next role as a private coach.

“I wasn’t coaching with the intention of making it a career,” she says. “I didn’t do it because they wanted me or needed me. I just thought I ought to do it.”

As each subsequent Olympic Games approached, however, she would feel that familiar tug to start training again. After all, she still felt like she could outskate the youngsters. In 1992, she went to the U.S. Olympic Trials and missed the team by one spot. She tried out again in 1994, 1998 and 2002, narrowly falling short each time despite limited training and preparation.

The final competition in 2002 offered a storybook, passing-of-the-torch ending, however. In that year, Nancy Sr. was lined up against Nancy Jr., then her 14-year-old daughter.

Although neither made the Olympic team that year, the duo pressed on until Nancy Jr. represented the United States at the Vancouver Winter Games. During the team pursuit event, she was part of one of the greatest upsets of the 2010 Olympics when the U.S. squad defeated the gold medal favorites from Canada. Unfortunately, Nancy Jr. and her teammates still fell short of a medal in fourth place.

Most would assume it was natural for Nancy Jr.—and later Jeffrey—to fill their mother’s ice skates. But that would be incorrect.

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“I didn’t have intentions of my kids becoming skaters,” Nancy Sr. says. “Nancy was a swimmer. Jeffrey played a lot of different sports. I was actually looking to get out of coaching when Nancy decided she wanted me to coach her. That was a greater justification to stay with it.”

Before that point, Nancy Jr. had shown minimal interest in speedskating. She and Jeffrey were certainly around the sport more than your average Midwestern kid, going to the rink as small children and skating hundreds of laps while their mother trained other athletes.

“My mom was so adamant about not wanting to be seen as a mom that was pushing her kids into the sport, it kind of repelled me,” Nancy Jr. says. “She didn’t invest in good skates for me because I wasn’t showing signs of being serious yet. When you don’t have good skates, your feet start to hurt. So that was kind of a turnoff, too. Along with that, she never gave me attention on the ice. She was always coaching other people. So that sort of drew me away from the sport. I didn’t love it.”

After trying her hand at numerous other sports like swimming, taekwondo and baseball, Nancy Jr. started going to the rink again, and this time was given a pair of hand-me-down skates from one of her mother’s pupils. Suddenly, as a teenage girl transitioning into high school, she discovered a renewed sense of joy on the ice.

“I liked it,” Nancy Jr. says. “For the first time, I was skating with some girls who were close to my age, and I was having fun.”

Swider-Peltz family
Nancy Jr. and Jeffrey Swider-Peltz

For Jeffrey, getting back on the ice at the age of 11 was a way to break the monotony of the glut of sports he was playing at the time. After competing as a 17-year-old at the 2006 U.S. Olympic Trials, he went to play football at Wheaton under his father, who’s been the coach there for more than 30 years. Less than two years into his collegiate career, however, Jeffrey began having second thoughts, so he left school after his sophomore year to pursue his Olympic dream full-time. While he intends to go back and complete his education, speedskating is now Jeffrey’s primary focus.

“My mom is such a great coach and such a great person,” he says. “She knows so much about the sport. I never gave it a fair shot. I wanted to find how good I could be if I just stuck to one thing for awhile.”

Solid Foundations

When it comes to matters of faith, Nancy Sr. took a similar approach with her children to the way she raised them up in the skating world. It was never forced but rather led by example. Nancy Sr. took her cue from her parents, whose “steadfastness and consistency” influenced her to make her own decisions.

“It was a lifestyle,” she says. “I saw that sincerity in my parents. That’s the way I wanted to raise my kids. I didn’t want to shove anything down their throats.”

Not only have Nancy Jr. and Jeffrey been able to learn from their mother’s Olympic experiences, but they have also benefited from the spiritual wisdom she gained along the way. Take, for instance, the harsh reality that Nancy Jr. saw firsthand when she began traveling to Europe as a teenager and was faced with difficult moral decisions.

“I’m so thankful to have had my mom go before me and set that example,” she says. “One thing she did, and something that I’ve also chosen to do, is refrain from drinking alcohol. When I was at the Junior World Cup Championship, everyone was getting drunk because alcohol was so accessible. It was crazy and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

Nancy Jr. hopes to be a godly example to others within her circle of influence. It’s something she and Jeffrey have seen their mother live out for many years. Nancy Sr. was an FCA board member and has spoken at several FCA events throughout her career. She continues to emphasize to her children the importance of not only using their platform, but to first make sure their platforms are built on a solid foundation.

“It starts from the bottom,” she says. “If you talk it but you don’t live it, that’s a big joke. If you want to have a platform, you’d better prepare the base of that platform before you get up there.”

For Jeffrey, the challenge is balancing personal goals and motives with a greater desire to serve those around him. While preparing for the Olympic Trials, he also understands the importance of never forgetting who he is and his true purpose in life.

“I don’t have to skate to be who I am,” Jeffrey says. “When you’re a serious athlete, that sometimes becomes your identity. But I can’t be a person who has to be a speedskater just to be somebody. You have to be who you are in Christ. And while we’re in the speedskating world, we want to share our faith, and love other people and try to be a good influence and a good example.”

Swider-Peltz family
Jeffrey and Nancy Jr. have come a long way since the early days skating on frozen neighborhood ponds to pursuing Olympic aspirations.

To that end, Jeffrey plans to use his previous experiences with FCA in high school to do more athletic and spiritual mentoring when this year’s Olympic journey comes to an end.

Nancy Jr. also has long-term sports ministry aspirations. But for now, she is dialing into that fighting spirit she inherited from her mother to overcome a rash of injuries that have plagued her since the 2010 Olympics. Recurring hamstring troubles and a stress fracture are among the setbacks Nancy Jr. has faced along the way.

“I’m thankful that I’m grounded in my faith,” she says. “I don’t ever recall blaming God for anything that’s happened to me. But it’s been during those down times when I’ve had to bring myself back to Christ and read the Bible and work on my relationship with Him. That’s what brings me back to a positive state of believing in myself again.”

Whether or not Nancy Jr. makes another Olympic team or skates beyond 2014, she knows there is a reason why she has been placed in a family full of elite athletes and blessed with a mother who is just as passionate about Jesus as she is about speedskating. Like her mom, she is willing to fight through life’s obstacles in order to fulfill her purpose—sharing the love of Jesus on and off the ice.

“God gives us gifts,” Nancy Jr. says. “We should use them with our full effort. It’s okay to have the drive to win. But as much as I want to go for the gold, I know that I can fall back on Christ. I have this faith that’s so strong. It’s who I am. It gives me the freedom to shoot as far as I can. I can go for it with nothing to lose and everything to gain in Christ.”

Originally Published: January 2014

Photos courtesy of the Swider-Peltz family.