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Stafford skater’s in hot pursuit of gold

GOALS: TEEN GOES THE DISTANCE

BY EDIE GROSS

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

At 5-foot-2, Devin Firek usually isn’t the biggest guy on the inline speed skating track.

But what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in speed, aggressiveness and sheer determination.

The Stafford County teen, who first pulled on a pair of roller skates at age 3, is taking all three qualities with him to Italy to represent the United States at the World Inline Speed Skating Championships next week.

Since inline skating is not yet an Olympic sport, this event is essentially the biggest roller-sports stage there is.

“It’s basically our little Olympics,” said Mike Firek, Devin’s father and an accomplished skater himself.

By “little,” he means about 600 elbow-slinging athletes from 40 countries jostling for position at speeds approaching 30 mph on a track—and upwards of 60 mph on the downhills.

It’s quite an accomplishment for an athlete who has done most of his training on the rink at Cavalier Family Skating on U.S. 1 or around the track at Dixon–Smith Middle School on Deacon Road. Mike Firek competed in artistic skating events in the 1970s, but he said his youngest son has always favored speed.

“He just took off when we put him on skates,” said Mike, who manages Mid-Atlantic Knife Co. in Ashland and coaches the speed-skating team at Cavalier.

Devin is often competing against taller athletes, and it takes two or three of his strides to equal one of theirs, said his mother, Betty Firek, who delivers mail for the Postal Service.

“He likes to be the best,” she said, “and he’ll run those kids down with those short legs.”

Stafford County teen Devin Firek (center) qualified to represent the United States at the World Inline Speed Skating Championships in Italy Sept. 8-15. It’s Firek’s second trip to the world championships, the biggest competition for roller sports.

‘COME AND CATCH ME’

Though he’s been skating most of his life, Devin, now 18 and a Stafford High grad, said he never expected to compete at this level.

He joined the speed-skating team at Cavalier—coached by his father, who managed the rink for 14 years—when he was just a tot.

But he gave it up in middle school to pursue other sports, including football, lacrosse, cross country and wrestling. He came back to skating after a two-year absence, mostly as a way to lose weight for wrestling.

“I was in the back of the pack for a while,” he recalled. “Then I just got focused on it one summer. The next indoor season really set it off, and I started winning everything.”

He has earned nine medals competing at national events governed by USA Roller Sports.

“When he came back,” his father said, “he came back hungry.”

But his success was threatened when he started to experience leg pain so severe that he had trouble finishing the long-distance events he specializes in.

The problem? His calf muscles—engaged in constant, intense exercise—had grown too large for the fasciae, or casings, surrounding them, and they were compressing nearby nerves.

In January 2011 surgeons cut those casings open, giving his muscles room to expand and preventing nerve damage. By March he was back in skates. And five weeks after that—to the shock of everyone—he qualified for the 2011 world championships in South Korea. He didn’t win a medal there, though he wowed the crowd with an impromptu dance-off at the opening ceremonies.

This year he competed against 39 other young men at the 2012 Inline Speed Skating Outdoor National Championships and Team USA Trials in Colorado, earning one of six spots on the junior men’s world team. Team USA also includes six junior women and a dozen senior men and women skaters. Devin spent the last two weeks training with his teammates at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“We got really close this year,” he said. “We’re all like a family.”

The team left for Italy on Thursday, Aug. 30 and competition runs Sept. 8–15. The trip meant that Devin had to miss the wedding of his oldest brother, Jay, this Saturday.

He was disappointed about that. But after everything he’d been through to get to this point, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compete, said his dad.

“This year’s been pretty amazing. He did a lot of extra gym work and interval work,” he said. “Pretty much, he’s one of the most exciting skaters to watch this year. He just takes off on ’em and says, ‘Come and catch me.’ ”

HOPING FOR A MEDAL

Just a few days before his departure, Devin sat in his family’s home in southern Stafford, trying to calculate how many sets of wheels—and what kind—to take with him.

Harder wheels are often faster, but they offer less grip, and without ever having skated on the track in Italy, it was hard to know which ones would work best.

Not to mention the cost. Skaters like Devin can spin a set of wheels down to their nubs in one race, meaning he might need to take nearly $1,000 worth of wheels with him.

“Devin, get what you have to get,” his mother said. “He worries about money. He knows we don’t have it. But it’s the chance of a lifetime. If we have to go in debt, so be it. I say, ‘Give it to God.’ ”

Devin gets a little sponsorship help from Simmons Racing in Florida, and his family’s mechanic, Bill Pulliam, donated some money to help defray the cost of the trip.

But most of the $4,000 cost falls to the Fireks. Their friends at Cavalier Family Skating, where Devin has worked since he was 16, are holding a fundraiser Sept. 8 to help cover those costs.

That day, competition begins at the world championships along the Adriatic coast of Italy. Devin won’t necessarily know exactly which events he’s skating in until the night before.

Each country is allowed two skaters in each event. Three of the junior men on the U.S. team specialize in sprinting, while three others, including Devin, focus on the long-distance events.

He plans to skate in the marathon Sept. 15 as well as in several relays. And he hopes to do at least one 10,000-meter, 15,000-meter or 20,000-meter event.

Roller-sports officials are hoping their events will be added to the 2020 Summer Olympics. But just in case, Devin is considering taking up cycling or ice skating so he can compete in the Games.

Before that happens, though, he plans to make his mark at this year’s world championships.

“I don’t have a world medal yet,” he said. “Hopefully that’ll change this year.”

WANT TO HELP?

Devin Firek’s trip to the World Inline Speed Skating Championships in Italy is likely to cost his family at least $4,000.

Their friends at Cavalier Family Skating, at 1924 Jefferson Davis Highway in Stafford, are hosting a fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, to help cover the costs. Proceeds from the $8 admission fee will go to Devin’s family. The event will also feature raffle prizes, including three tickets and parking passes to the Dec. 3 Redskins–Giants game.

If you can’t make it, you can still help out by sending donations to the Devin Firek Skating Fund, Box 7152, Fredericksburg, Va. 22404.

WANT TO WATCH?

Stafford teen Devin Firek will be one of two dozen athletes representing the United States at this year’s World Inline Speed Skating Championships in Italy.

Officials plan to stream each event live at pattinatorisambenedettesi.it/mondiali2012 ,

where you can also find a schedule of races. Keep in mind that Italy is six hours ahead of the East Coast.

Officials are also posting videos and photos to facebook.com/Mondialinline2012it. And for a good laugh, check out the video of Devin entertaining the crowd at last year’s world championships in South Korea: dailyhouse.com/2011/08/29/inline-worlds-opening-ceremonies-looks-awesome-video.

 

 

 

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

egross@freelancestar.com

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