Local filmmakers offer an intimate look at the world of competitive short-track speedskating
When filmmakers Sarah Patton, Laura Hambleton and Laura DeBruce began collaborating on a documentary about short-track speedskating, no one was really talking about the sport. It was before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, when Apolo Ohno would become the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history, before the sport came to be “splashed all over the news,” Hambleton says.
All the women knew was that they wanted to make a movie about kids in sports. They lived in the same Chevy Chase neighborhood (though Patton has since moved to Geneva, with her production company, Stone Lantern Films, now in New York). Each had children heavily involved in athletics. Hambleton and Patton actually met through their daughters’ field hockey.
“We’ve all known a ton of coaches through our years with our kids,” Hambleton says. “We’ve all sat on the sidelines for a very long time.”
They were considering soccer or basketball as subjects when they stumbled across a Saturday speedskating program for inner-city youths run by former Olympian Nathaniel Mills in Southeast D.C. That led them to Potomac Speedskating, a club where the kids wear specialized equipment instead of borrowed skates and train up to six times a week.
Competitive speedskating, the women decided, perfectly embodied the issues they were interested in exploring, from the level of commitment to the amount of money often involved. Immersing themselves in the subculture was “like stumbling into a surreal, magical world that we knew nothing about,” says DeBruce, who, with Hambleton, runs Hunt Avenue Productions, named for the street on which they live.
They discovered a world with its own rules and rituals, one in which children “suit up like gladiators” and wear skates custom-molded to their feet and costing up to $2,000 before stepping onto the rink.
When they first began filming Potomac Speedskating in 2009, the women saw a cohesive unit, with parents and skaters proud to have South Korean Olympic champion Kim Dong-Sung there as coach.
But filming took a dramatic turn in 2010 when allegations of physical and verbal abuse by the coach divided the club into factions. The women were on the scene to capture the developments, including an exclusive on-camera interview with Kim responding to the accusations.
In the wake of the controversy, the filmmakers realized there was “more bubbling beneath the surface” at Potomac than they had thought, DeBruce says. What began as a broader look at the sport in the D.C. area became SPEED SKATE, a tightly focused story about five local children of varying ages and nationalities pursuing Olympic dreams.
The women were hoping to wrap up the film, which is a co-production between Hunt Avenue Productions and Stone Lantern Films, in October and air it on Maryland Public Television in February.
Though the documentary focuses on the kids, it really comes “from the point of view of three moms,” DeBruce says. It asks how far someone will go to become an Olympic champion and raises questions that any parent of a child “on the edge of excellence” has to grapple with, she says. Like speedskating itself, it’s a question of balance—between supporting the child’s pursuit of excellence and giving him or her the opportunity to be a regular kid.
“Ninety percent of those kids are not going to reach that goal, but there’s always ‘what if,’ ” DeBruce says. “That is an issue as compelling as the speedskating itself.”
Anya Grenier was a Bethesda Magazine intern. A junior at Yale University, she’s from Kensington.