A few lucky souls are born with the ability and the desire to compete in the Olympic Games. A few more are given the opportunity to live out the American dream.
With a little more hard work, and a little bit of luck, Ivan Skobrev could complete two lifetimes worth of dreams in a few short years.
Born in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, Skobrev grew up in temperatures far different from the ones he has been training in at Brien McMahon High School. Winter temperatures of minus-35 degrees were the norm, but in Norwalk, where Skobrev lives on a Green Card and spends much of his time, the climate is much different.
The weather of his home country was a perfect way to learn his life's calling, however.
His mother put him on skates before he turned three years-old, and 24 years later, the 6-foot-2 blonde haired Russian scored two Olympic medals in Men's Speed Skating at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Landing in America
Skobrev has his parents to thank for the dual life he has, the one he has in Russia, and the one he enjoys in Fairfield County. His family did not have the best of lives in Russia, and his mother researched day and night to not only find the best way to get to America, but the best place to go as well.
"My mom is the lady of our family, and the man. She makes everything happen and makes everyone believe in themselves. She moved all of us. Because of here I finished school, my brother went to school in Fairfield County, the best area," Skobrev said.
"My mom, she went on the Internet looked for best schools, best life. We're not rich, we worked extremely hard in the beginning. My dad worked hard, my mom cleaned houses, she wanted to make it perfect for her kids. She went through a lot of hard things to make our lives easier."
His family gained a green card 11 years ago, but Skobrev did not come over to the United States with them.
"I moved to St. Petersburg for Olympic school because I wanted to be independent from my family and I had my first contract and I wanted to better my own life. I was 16-years-old," Skobrev said.
Skobrev's path toward speed skating began before he was even born. Both of his parents were speed skaters, and after his mom put him on skates at such a young age, the sport came naturally.
"It's a sport where I did good, but I mostly (did it) because of my parents," Skobrev said. "Once I had my first skates, I beat everybody, and if you're No. 1 it's nice and you keep doing it."
The Vancouver Games were Skovrev's second after competing in Torino in 2006. Those games did not go so well for Skobrev.
"I was fifth, sixth, sixth and 11th, so I was not even close to the podium, and they were not easy years. I switched coaches during the four years," Skobrev said.
He knew something had to change, so went to the Russian Government and said he wanted to change his training regimen, that working out with the top coaches in Russia was not enough to place in the top three.
"I followed all the programs, but they did not work for me. Then I found an Italian program with Enrico Fabris (an Italian speed skater,) a really good guy, and we fought all the time, but we looked to beat the Dutch," he said. "We worked together and it was a really hard year. I had never worked that hard, never before."
All of his hard work was nearly derailed three weeks before the biggest competition of his life. During a training run, Skobrev was involved in an accident on the ice, which separated his shoulder.
"I fell pretty badly in a corner. I tried to save my skates, so my arms were at my eyes and my shoulder popped, then I stood up and it went back in. The bones were okay, and I did an MRI, and they said I needed surgery and I said, ` do it after three weeks, tape it, whatever it is you have to do,'" Skobrev said. "I went to the hotel, and I couldn't move my arm for a week."
He thanks his girlfriend for everything she did during those three weeks. Shoe-tying, dressing, anything he needed, she took care of. "She supported me a lot," he said."
He still thinks the injury cost him a third trip to the podium.
"That's why I think I missed a third medal in the 1500, finishing fourth, because I had injured it. (I had) a good chance to get there three times, but we're going to Sochi (in 2014) so I still have a chance to do that.," Skobrev said.
Living Out Dream No. 1
The Olympics began on Feb. 12, with Skobrev's journey beginning the very next day, with the 5K, an event he placed 11th in 2006. With a time of 6:18.05, Skobrev took home a bronze medal.
"I had a pairing with Enrico at 1 p.m. in Russia that's 13:00, so a lot of numbers and it was a really good fight against him, and I beat him and it turned out it was good enough for third, and yeah it was very special," Skobrev said. "(Russia's) only medal for five days."
His second race was much more famous. Sven Kramer, a Dutch skater considered to be one of the best in the world, was in Skobrev's pair in the 10K. Kramer finished their pairing thinking he had won the Gold medal in record breaking time, but later learned he was disqualified after an illegal lane change.
"I just realized after the race, maybe after an hour. I didn't think about it during the race, I just tried to skate and change the lanes every time, but now I remember, he was in the front, and that's not possible, he needed to be in different lanes, but I didn't think about it at the time, I don't know why," Skobrev said.
The gaffe cost Kramer a gold, but it pushed Skobrev up to second position on the podium with a silver.
Winning one medal was all he had dreamed. Winning two was icing on the cake.
"I did not think about gold. Just before the games, any medal would be good for me," Skobrev said. "I was close, fifth, fourth, sixth, but not in the top, so for me it was a dream just to medal. Then I had the bronze and silver."
How does one celebrate winning two medals over the course of two weeks?
"My father turned 50, right after the games in April, so I gave $50,000 to him and that was my gift and celebration," Skobrev said. "You wait for it, and wait for it, and then it happens and you don't even know the emotions. In my first press conference right after my medal, I couldn't even find the words to say. I was almost crying, my girlfriend was there and it was just a lot of emotions. I worked extremely hard and I did my best. And now I understand to win a medal you have to work really hard."
His medal's are here in the U.S. now, but he did take them back to Khabarovsk and his medals were widely celebrated in his home country.
"Everybody was so happy for me, I saw some news, and Internet, everyone was covering the medals. It's good to have these medals," Skobrev said, "(Russia) had maybe 13, 15 medals, which for Russia is nothing, we're a big country with a good winter tradition."
Still Looking to Complete American Dream
Skobrev is here legally on a Green Card. He has already done a lot with the money he has gained as an Olympian in Russia, which makes him a part of the Russian government. He has a house, a car, and his own window installation business. But he wants more.
"I want to say thanks to my parents and to the U.S. The U.S. helped my family to survive. It was a really hard situation for us in Russia, that's why we came here," Skobrev said. "Yes, I'm famous in Russia and I have some money now, but I can't say it was all great. I know speed skating is not that popular in the U.S. and not every skater has support, but there are places that will help, like Home Depot for example. Even here, I can open my own company, and of course it's a hard job, but I can take breaks, have vacations."
In Russia, athletes are put on a very rigid training schedule that does not allow for outside endeavors like in the United States.
"If you're at the top, you have plenty of support. But if you're in the middle, the support is just your family and some people interested in helping you," he said.
Skobrev tried to gain American citizenship before the last Olympics, but was denied.
"I applied for an American passport, I'm allowed after five years with a green card, but I didn't spend enough time in the U.S. so they told me not this time. And I think it wasn't a good idea because at the Olympics I won two medals," said Skobrev with a laugh. "I said to the officer, please I want to win medals for America. I had a good letter from U.S. Speed Skating, but it didn't help. But I will wait, maybe a few more years, I will wait then maybe I'll have an American passport."
One of the biggest reasons Skobrev wants to permanently live in the United States is that his brother Artem, a graduate of Darien High School, is a sophomore at the University of Connecticut and in the country full-time.
"This is the country where I want to live. I want to be with my brother, they have a good education and city life here. We don't have these kinds of schools in Russia," Skobrev said. "I can't say I have a lot of friends, here. My best friend is my brother."
For Artem, a track star at Darien and UConn, it was a thrill watching his brother win two medals while in his dorm.
"When he finished the 5K with a chance for the bronze and the last pair is skating, and when they didn't make those times, (you) just jump up, tears in your eyes, your life changes," Artem said. "When Kramer, when he fouled out I was excited. Not the best way to get up in the ranks, but he made the mistake, not only do you get the silver and bronze, but there's a lot of other things you get with it too and it changed his life and our lives."
Becoming a U.S. citizen might be bittersweet for Skobrev if it happens in the next four years though. After all, the 2014 Olympics are in his home country of Russia, and he is already being used as an ambassador for the Games.
Last month he spoke at a Vancouver Games debfriefing session in Russia, which was attended by International Olympic Committee members and governmental dignitaries.
"Everybody tells me I gave a really good speech. In Russia, ( I have) no problem speaking with anyone, the problem is English. All the main guys were there and I was nervous," Skobrev said. "I started to be myself and it was good, everybody laughed, I told some jokes. I said `What was my favorite moment from Vancouver?' I said `maybe my two medals' and everybody laughed. The president shook my hand said it was very good. I like doing good publicity to help if I can help."
With two medals already in tow, he said he will not feel any additional pressure to win more in his home country should he still be wearing a different shade of Red, White & Blue.
"The next Olympic Games are in Sochi, Russia, so of course I want a gold! I can say that because I already have two medals, so my dream came true, the only thing I need is a gold," Skobrev said. "Of course I would love to get the gold and be a real hero. And of course I will try to be American before as well. I want to have a family, a wife soon and kids and I want them to grow up here in the U.S. I may still be Russian, but if I have the chance to be American and let my family be Americans I will switch it right away."
Four Years is Not Too Far Away
With sweltering weather pounding the area, Skobrev, donning Red and Blue Russian training gear, is a regular at the Brien McMahon track most mornings. The school is close to his Norwalk home, about a five minute walk he said which is safe because "they have good roads here, very clean, very safe and they drive smart, not like in Russia." He knows what it takes to win a medal now, which is work, work and more work.
On the morning the Citizen interviewed him, it was over 90 degrees. Yet he and his brother ran on the track for more than an hour and a half, with only two four-minute breaks in between.
One thing he cannot overcome though, is his brother on the track. Continuously his younger brother beat him to the finish, lap after lap.
"We get to have more brotherly moments (with Ivan in the States), but we still have to focus on the next Olympics, after that we can relax all we want. It's definitely fun to beat him though," Artem said.
The workout consisted of a 300 meter tough run, followed by jumps to produce endurance for muscles and skating positions, as well as slides and skating jumps. Later in the day, he was going to go to the YMCA in Darien for weightlifting because, "you need the weight training for speed skating," Skobrev said.
The next morning would include a bike ride as another way to improve endurance because he specializes in long distances. All this is done seven days a week, rain or shine.
"I understand to win a medal you have to work really hard. I have to forget about everything and start to work again and again, but then it's time again," Skobrev said.
"I can't say my life is too bad. I have the opportunity to live in the U.S., I have the opportunity to have a house, to have a car to make my life good. But the main goal was the Olympic medals."