|Mystique Ro glides and slides toward an Olympics icebreaker|
|Queens grad breaks barriers as skeleton racer|
|Published Tuesday, June 2, 2020 11:20 pm|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|Former Queens track and field athlete Mystique Ro found her competitive niche as a world-class skeleton racer. Ro, who graduated Queens in 2016, is ranked No. 7 in the U.S. and aspires to earn a berth on the 2022 Olympic squad. She finished third in the North American Cup standings in 2019-20 despite missing three of eight competitions to race in Europe.|
As a youngster, she imagined running against the world’s best athletes for a chance at summer games glory. The track she now envisions is covered in winter ice and she’s sliding on a sled, a change of venue but the same goal: earn a spot in the 2022 winter games.
“That would be awesome,” said Ro, one of America’s top skeleton racers and a 2016 Queens graduate who trains in Charlotte. “As a kid, I dreamed of going to the Olympics, but that was not feasible, just with how competitive [track] is and just what I was doing in preparation for that but it’s a big deal to just realize it. I’m one of 11 [children], so a lot of things I’ve done has been the first in the family to do something … to go to college first, to compete collegiately, get my degree and now I’m doing this.”
To make the U.S. team, Ro, who is ranked seventh in the nation, will have to advance at least one spot in the 2022 Olympic trials. Growing up in a family with eight brothers, she understands competition and as a child of Korean and black parents, Ro knows the overt and subtle racism in a sport that is overwhelmingly white.
“There’s been some, I won’t call hostility, but some reservations about interacting because of that,” Ro said. “This past season, there was a girl who asked about my ethnicity and my background and my teammates told her I mixed with black and Korean. And it’s ‘oh that’s why she’s so fast,’ so that was an international athlete. I said I have nine years of track and field experience. I’ve trained for this, so it’s not just genetics.”
Ro, a native of Nokesville, Virginia, an hour west of Washington D.C., wasn’t highly recruited as a high school athlete upon graduation in 2012 but wanted a college willing to take a chance on her. She pitched Queens, where Royals coach Jim Vahrenkamp was settling into his first year.
“We kind of had our conversation there about what I was looking forward to about immersive programs,” said Ro, who graduated in 2016. “I turned out to be his first recruit.”
Ro was a versatile athlete at Queens, where she was primarily a hurdler but had the versatility to participate in multiple events.
“I had a background in hurdles, but I did multiple events,” she said. “So, I had experience jumping, throwing, hurdling, relays, open sprints, so I came in, kind of did whatever I needed to do and competed a couple heptathlons but I kind of did a little bit of everything under 800 meters.”
Ro’s track background turned out to be foundational for skeleton, where competitors ride face-down and head-first on a small sled on a frozen track. Races begin with a running start from the opening gate at the top of the course on the sled, which is thinner and heavier than in luge, and the rider has more control as speeds top 80 miles per hour. It’s more popular in the North, where winter ice is conducive to sledding.
As a Queens senior, Ro was looking to continue as a competitive athlete, but track wasn’t necessarily the best opportunity. By happenstance, a track meet provided one.
“The 2016 season, my team and I went to the [NCAA Division II] nationals, so [teammate Nakia Squire] and I were kind of just chilling,” Ro said. “It turns out the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation have recruiting coaches to send emails out to the coaches across the country just asking if they have any athletes interested in trying out. So, they sent out a schedule of combines and the closest one to me was in Columbia, South Carolina.”
Ro did well enough to earn an invitation to rookie camps and ascended up the skeleton ladder despite being vaguely familiar with the sport.
“The first time I ever saw bobsled was from the 2010 Olympics,” she said. “Steve Holcomb was driving and that was my gateway into the sport. I saw a skeleton and I was like, that’s absolutely insane. I would never do that.”
Combine coaches were impressed at the power Ro generated on starts at 5-foot-3, 130 pounds. Instead of pushing the heavier, team-centric bobsled, they suggested sliding the lighter, single-person sled.
“They’re like, ‘you want to do both, that’s fine,’ so I did the combine like that,” Ro said, “but then as we get closer to rookie camp they told me ‘you’re a little small, so you might want to at least consider skeleton and I was like, ‘all right, anything to kind of continue the journey,’ so I agreed to it.”
That flexibility brought Ro closer to her goal. She put together her best season in 2019-20, finishing third in the North American Cup standings despite missing three of eight races to compete in the European Cup. She capped the campaign by earning a team-best two gold medals in the finale in Lake Placid, New York.
“I’m really excited,” Ro said. “I think with how my training’s going, both physically and mentally, I’m in a better position to be more competitive to chase down a national team spot which is top six in the nation and being number seven I just missed it. But I think if I keep going with what I’m doing, that’ll put me in a really good spot to actually make that dream a reality.”
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