Jeanne Omelenchuk – Olympian 1960, 1968, 1972
Detroit Michigan, 1981 – 1984.
It was always frigid on those Tuesday and Thursday nights. Twirling in the black hole of grasping darkness, speedskaters from across southeast Michigan would gravitate to this forsaken twilight world - a world artificially created in a forlorn city park settled in the middle of the urban blight of the lights of Detroit. Taillights streaming, slinging our vehicles down the long chain link fence lined dirt drive to the low outbuildings of the Farwell Field warming hut, we were a disparate group of hardy souls in search of ice. Oppressed by the darkness but lit by the few lights afforded by the city, this patch of greenish black ice became a Mecca for a strange set of tightly clothed pilgrims.
Now, as an adult– all kinds of questions come to mind – wasn’t it dangerous there in the inner city? Who paid for the heating bills in the drafty, run down warming house? Who drove the Zamboni in order to keep that blackish green sheet of ice fairly smooth amongst the grit of the city? What did the parents do while us kids froze for hours on end out there in the dark?
Regardless, for several years during my early teens, a fixture of many winter evenings was the long drive through the black winter sky to Farwell field. The lacing of skates, and the walk out on the black rubber mats to this weird frozen tundra in the urban jungle were a staple of my after school experience. And always there was the presence of this elegant woman, this fragile piece of porcelain in the dark ill-lit cold of this urban skating mecca.
Often accompanied by her gregarious husband George, who whose booming voice and large frame would dominate the warming house, Jeannhe Omelenchuk’s presence was made known only on the ice.
To my 12, 13 and 14 year old self, Jeanne was sort of ageless. Older, but with elegant lines and grace on the ice – night after night I watched her make beautiful turns and then fade into the dark, coaching her pupils. Most nights she wore the old 70’s style peaked speedskating hat and the cotton or wool tights and jerseys that were just fading in favor of spandex. But some nights she let her hair loose.
One night, she took an interest in me. I think we were in different clubs – not exactly sure – and started coaching me. No pay, no rewards – just the common interest that one human being displays to another human being after witnessing their struggles.
I was everything Jeanne was not – awkward where she was elegant, hard angles where she was lissome, choppy where she was graceful. But she took pity on me, and night after night would ask me follow her and would skate slowly, smoothly ahead of me and show me how to ride the left blade, how to move my limbs smoothly, under control, how to skate a crossover without requiring centrifugal force to align my limbs.
And it worked and slowly, painstakingly, I was able to make an elegant crossover – in slow motion – that wasn’t awkward and forced.
And then time moved on and different rinks came and went and I saw her less and less.
I won clocks – many of them – from the annual ‘silver skates’ competitions and other meets and still have most of them. All of these supplied, and sponsored by George Omelenchuk’s clock shop in Detroit. And usually, she was still there – a face in the crowd, smiling, quiet - always pleased with her pupil… until one day – probably 20 years ago, I glimpsed her elegant features again for a moment in the face of the crowd and then never saw her again.
Thank you Jeanne Omelenchuk, for bothering on a miserable, cold, dark evening in Detroit to select an unwilling and undeserving student. Thank you for giving so much and receiving nothing in return.
Aug. 6, 2004
Omelenchuk was chosen for the Hall of Fame as an outstanding female athlete who attended Wayne State but was unable to compete for the university during her competitive years. Olympic speedskater Jeanne Omelenchuk received her B.A. from Wayne State in 1954 and her M.A. in Education in 1962. During her outstanding career in speedskating Jeanne represented the United States in the Winter Olympics during 1960, 1968, and 1972. She competed in Squaw Valley, California in 1960, in Grenoble, France in 1968 and in Sapparo, Japan during the 1972 Olympiad. She is the holder of 14 national speedskating titles, more than anyone in the history of the sport. She was a member of four United States World Speedskating Teams during four consecutive seasons 1968-1971. During her career, Jeanne has won six North American, four National, and 12 State speedskating titles. She has state records in the 880, ¾ Mile, One Mile and Two Mile speedskating events. In 1978, Jeanne won the National Veterans Women's Speedskating Championship. Not only is Jeanne an outstanding speedskater, but she also won the National bicycling championship in 1952 and 1953. By doing this she became the first woman to ever win national titles in two different major sports events.