by Andrew Garda
In Montclair, kids have a wide variety of sports to participate in. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse, baseball, softball — all have proud traditions in town, attracting kids of all ages.
But some children aren’t pulled to those sports. Some are looking for something a little different.
Clara La Blanc is one such kid. La Blanc, a sixth grader at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, spends all her time at the ice rink, speedskating with the Garden State Speedskating team.
It wasn’t a path she expected to take.
“I used to be a figure skater,” she explained. “But whenever there was free skate and we were allowed to skate however we wanted, I would always just skate really fast. I enjoyed that much more than doing the tricks, and I wanted to sign up for, like, a faster type of skating.”
Clara didn’t want to pursue hockey, as the contact seemed too rough. Her family went looking for alternatives.
“When my mom found speedskating, I was so shocked because, like, it was literally exactly what I had been looking for, you know?” she said.
Clara has been speedskating for over a year now, and there’s little she likes more than being on the ice, except perhaps how she feels when she finishes practice or a race.
“I don’t really know how to describe it. I always just feel so relaxed and like content afterwards,” she explained.
Clara said skating fast isn’t as easy as it looks, though. It takes hours at the rink and lots of work, and she is constantly working to improve.
“I don’t have great form,” she said. “It’s very hard to get the posture correct. We have to be in a certain position, in order to go faster. It’s very hard to get that form.”
When quarantine hit in March, Clara found herself with some extra time to work on that form.
Like so many things in New Jersey, rinks were closed, and so she and the team were unable to get time on the ice.
When parks opened, though, the team got together to work on things like form and conditioning.
Elizabeth La Blanc, Clara’s mother, said that beyond the practice, it made a huge difference for all the kids mentally to just see each other again.
“I think it was being pent up, they were so happy to be outside moving,” she said. “They had these hard workouts, three, four days a week, but it was completely worth it, both for the social aspect and the improvement.”
All the focus on form definitely improved Clara’s form, which in turn helped her increase her speed.
“When you get back on the ice, just having done the dry land, she improved [so] much,” her mother said. “You know, the dry land being these very specific exercises that focus on those leg muscles and on the body position, the form. It helped.”
The team aspect of individual sports like speedskating often gets overlooked, but both Clara and her mother said having your teammates there, cheering you on and inspiring you even in practice, makes a big difference.
Still, when you step on the ice, you are ultimately on your own.
For Clara, those moments are what she lives for.
“My favorite part is racing. I love going really fast and competing against other people, like racing against someone else, you know, trying to pass them,” she said. “It’s really fun.”
Clara qualified for the Junior Nationals last year, though those were canceled due to the pandemic. While she was disappointed, she feels that given how much she has improved, she can qualify again when the opportunity arises.
“This year I’ve gotten much better at passing and starts and stuff,” she said. “So I think the next competition that I go to, I am hopeful that I will be able to qualify for Nationals again, because I think I have gotten much better.”
Between the influence of the older kids on the team — specifically a 16-year-old girl who qualified for the National Junior Development camp — and the confidence gained by competing and succeeding, Clara’s mother can see how much good the sport has done for her daughter.
“It’s been a life-changer,” Elizabeth La Blanc said. “It’s a life-changing event for her to have found a team.”
For Clara, all she is thinking about is continuing her improvement for the next race. She’s hoping to get that next qualification for Junior Nationals, even though the experience seems a little daunting.
“It would probably be really stressful, but also I think I would really enjoy it,” she said. “I mean, I’m hoping to do a lot in my life, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to [make Junior Nationals], but that would really be an amazing thing to be able to do.”