When Bryce Holbech moved from Prince George to Abbotsford during his middle school years, speed skating was, in his words, “a neat little sport that I liked.”
During his tenure with the Matsqui Blades, the local short track club, the sport grew from a hobby into a passion, and it’s carried him all the way to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Holbech, 38, works as a senior sport consultant with U.S. Speedskating, and he’s in Sochi as a U.S. Olympic Committee advisor – essentially “a general manager-type position” for the American short track and long track teams.
“It’s been really good here,” Holbech told The News last week via Skype from Sochi. “It’s interesting – you can take pictures of palm trees in the Olympic park, with snowcapped mountains in the background.”
Holbech’s journey to these Games is a fascinating one.
The Yale Secondary grad rose to become one of Canada’s top short-track skaters in the mid-1990s, and was a member of 5,000-metre relay teams that won gold at the 1995 world championships in world record time, and followed up with a silver medal in 1996.
“The Canadian short track team was pretty strong – Marc Gagnon, Fred Blackburn and Derrick Campbell were the three big names, and there was always a fourth person on those (relay) teams that nobody would know,” Holbech said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “In 1995 and ’96, I was pretty much that fourth person.”
Holbech, who was inducted into the Abbotsford Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, never tasted Olympic competition as an athlete. He was still relatively young in his career in 1994, and finished 12th in Canadian qualifying for the Lillehammer Games.
In October 1996, he suffered a broken ankle, and never reached the same level afterward.
“In ’98, I came back and I think I finished eighth (in qualifying for the Nagano Games), and I just didn’t have it,” he recalled. “It’s a tough sport to come back from injuries in a short period of time.”
Holbech retired from competitive speed skating at the age of 23 and transitioned into banking, but stayed involved with the sport as a volunteer with the Canadian technical committee.
That eventually led to a job with the Vancouver Olympic Committee as the sport manager for short track at the 2010 Games.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I walked away from the sport achieving many of my long-term goals, but not my dream goal of going to the Olympics. Vancouver ended up being a route to the Games.
“I met some great people, and that led to a lot of different potential jobs.”
One of those was with U.S. Speedskating, where he’s helped to restructure the sport’s governing body south of the border. He does much of his work remotely from his home in Chilliwack, where he lives with his wife and two sons, and commutes to the organization’s headquarters in Salt Lake City for roughly one week per month.
“As long as athletes are getting what they need . . . you can pretty much do (the job) anywhere in the world,” he explained. “I can pretty much Skype with anybody, and they don’t know where I’m at.”
Holbech has high hopes for the U.S. speed skaters in Sochi, and though he represented Canada during his own athletic career, he said it’s not overly strange to be wearing the stars and stripes at this Olympics.
“In some of these smaller sports, what you’ll find is there’s a lot of coaches and staff that come from other countries,” he noted “Our head short track coach is from Canada, our long track director is from Norway.
“At the end of the day, it’s a small world.”
Holbech looks back fondly on his time with the Blades, who helped launch his career in the sport.
“I owe a lot to the Matsqui Blades for being there and fostering a kid that could skate into someone that could speed skate, and carry on to where I’m at today,” he said.