What separates Julie Letai from the speedskating pack isn’t necessarily physical. It surfaces in her performance but is invisible to the naked eye.
Letai, 21, of Medfield, will represent Team USA at the Beijing Winter Olympics next month, racing in the 3,000-meter short-track relay Feb. 9 and 13. Through the ups and downs of her young career, an intense focus on what she can control has helped pave the way to her success.
“I’m not visually the best skater,” Letai said, “but my mind-set has allowed me to unlock this ability to work really hard and have fun doing it, which has let me improve a lot.”
An Olympic sport since 1992, short-track speedskating is held on a 111.12-meter oval track. Unlike the single-round, time-trial speedskating on a 400-meter track, short track features head-to-head competition in heats and rounds to determine a winner. Short-track skates have smaller blades. The skaters wear boots for the sharp turns and helmets for safety.
A 2018 Medfield High School graduate who was president of her class and the school’s National Honor Society chapter, Letai also ran outdoor track and cross-country. First on skates at age 2, Letai started honing her speedskating skills with Bay State Speedskating in Walpole at age 7. She tried figure skating, she said, but she “was a huge tomboy and refused to wear tutus or anything like that.”
But just Letai loved skating. The adrenaline rush. The cold air. The thrill. What started as a mother-daughter activity grew into an Olympic career.
Caroline Hallisey-Kepka, who competed in three Olympics, is one of nine Olympians groomed by Bay State Speedskating. Letai was a regular at Hallisey-Kepka’s camps growing up, and Hallisey-Kepka remembers Letai as a talented skater. Her first impression included plenty of crashes and falls, but “I remember telling someone next to me, ‘she has something,’” Hallisey-Kepka said.
“She got up from every crash and it didn’t deter her,” Hallisey-Kepka said. “I remember saying way back that if this is something she wanted to pursue, she had the talent to go all the way.”
Another formative experience occurred at a 2016 summer camp in Milwaukee, where Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter-Adamek was one of the coaches. The experience confirmed Letai’s hunch that speedskating was her calling.
Letai and Reutter-Adamek worked together from 2013-16 sporadically at various camps. In 2016, when Reutter-Adamek began competing again, they had the same coach, Hongyang Wang. Letai’s even-keeled disposition through success and failure struck Reutter-Adamek.
“Julie has one of the best attitudes of any athlete I’ve worked with,” Reutter-Adamek said. “She’s extremely positive and able to take feedback in an objective way and roll with it.”
Letai’s ability to balance her commitments stood out to those around her.
Repeats on the outdoor track under the beating sun were nothing for Letai. In fact, she embraced them. As an underclassman, Letai encouraged her teammates to “do what they were supposed to do,” with some good-natured ribbing, said Diane Lyon, Letai’s high school cross-country and track coach. Letai often left track practice for speedskating practice, never complaining about her seemingly never-ending responsibilities.
“She had that Olympic fire even back when she was 16,” Lyon said. “She just worked like no other athlete I’ve ever had in my 30 years.”
Michael Cowell, Letai’s high school physics teacher and student government adviser, said, “She just doesn’t admit defeat, ever. She just has this awesome growth mind-set.”
With that attitude, Letai battled through adversity. She had right knee surgery in the summer of 2018 and didn’t make the fall team for the senior World Cup.
She bounced back with a strong 2018-19 winter season, earning an invitation from US Speedskating to train with the national team full-time in Utah and a spot on the 2019 Junior World Championships roster.
In July of 2020, Letai had her left knee repaired after an overuse injury. The comeback wasn’t easy. She couldn’t train for three months. A year before the Olympics, she felt extra stress. Again, she homed in on what got her to where she is.
“I definitely try to keep perspective a lot,” Letai said. “I feel like the biggest thing I think about is only stressing what’s in my control. Doing that makes it so much easier to have a positive attitude.”
Letai returned stronger, she said, making the US Speedskating World Cup team and winning bronze as part of the 3,000-meter relay team at the 2021 World Championships.
USA Speedskating short track coach Stephen Gough only started working with Letai this summer but quickly learned of her trademark demeanor.
“Julie is a very hard worker, determined and disciplined, qualities that will lead to success in pretty much anything,” Gough said “She’s been very focused on her goals and the work she needs to put in to improve.”
In addition to pursuing her athletic career, Letai is in school, part time and mostly online, at the University of Utah, intending to have a career in global health and international relations — inspired by her father, Dr. Anthony Letai, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor at Harvard Medical School.
Reutter-Adamek, who won silver and bronze medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, advised Letai to stick close with her teammates
“Sometimes competing at the Games can be kind of lonely because you’re so focused on what has to be done,” said Reutter-Adamek. “Leaning on your teammates and remembering the bigger picture, that can contribute to tapering the nerves and lead to a better performance.”
Letai will travel from Utah to Los Angeles for team processing, then fly via charter to Beijing Jan. 27. With the COVID-19 pandemic, she isn’t quite sure what to expect.
“We don’t know a lot about what we’ll be allowed to do,” she said, “if there’s any socializing or if we’ll be quarantined in our rooms and then going back and forth to the rink.
“Either way, we’re still incredibly pumped for it, to perform on the main stage. It’s hard to put it into words and everything because it’s just so unreal.”