After graduating from Marquette University with a degree in psychology in 2007, Liam Ortega decided to pursue his Olympic dream by qualifying for the United States' long track speed skating team as they prepared for the 2010 Winter Games.
But during a practice in 2008, a fellow skater’s blades broke on the inside track, sending him careening to the outer ring where Ortega was gliding along. He crashed into the back of Ortega’s legs, flipping him backwards and causing his head to hit the ice.
The fall resulted in a cracked skull and brain trauma, causing Ortega to miss out on giving those U.S. Olympic Trials his best shot. After that, he had to decide if he would continue to train and prepare for another go at making the U.S. national team.
OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Ortega, a native of Fairbanks, Alaska, at Sven’s Café on Water Street during a break from his training at the Pettit National Center to talk about the people who helped push him back into that pursuit of that Olympic dream, his fundraising efforts to keep it alive, his favorite places to eat in Milwaukee – and how he enjoys them even though his accident left him without his sense of smell.
OnMilwaukee.com: Thanks for taking a break from your training regimen to chat. Despite being from Alaska, you come back to Milwaukee often don’t you?
Liam Ortega: The only downside of Milwaukee is there are no mountains! It’s a fantastic city. It’s so dynamic and growing. The people are great. It’s a small town, big city. You can go to the local farmer’s market in whatever part of the Milwaukee area and run into somebody you know. Or you might make a new friend because people are so friendly.
I like the community and I like the culture. It’s very at ease. It’s very hard working city. It’s a very healthy city. How it’s changed from when I was 18 years old to now – a decade is a big change in Milwaukee and it’s fun to see that change. I like Milwaukee a lot more than Salt Lake City. You can be in the countryside in five minutes. Like go to the lakefront, head up Lake Drive, and you’re headed up to Port Washington and Grafton. No big deal.
I live out in Menomonee Falls. It’s 20 minutes and it’s completely tranquil. There are cows across the street. I like that feel a lot. You can have the city life, you can have the fun aspects, but you can also have the complete release and relaxation.
OMC: We’re here at Sven’s, enjoying a coffee. I noticed that you added a lot of honey to it. How has losing your sense of smell affected your ability to enjoy all the great food here?
LO: When I was recovering I got phantom smells, meaning I might be smelling something very specifically without any stimulus present. So for a few hours everything might smell like salmon. But being in Milwaukee, Brew City, when that yeast smell covers the city I don’t smell that anymore. Bummer.
I do like beer, but … or that leather factory, where it smells like something died. I don’t smell that anymore. Or down by the lakefront when all the dead fish in Lake Michigan release the toxins, I don’t smell those at all! The yeast smell is uniquely Milwaukee. That’s a fun smell. The adjustment was mostly getting more texture in my food.
My sense of smell is not back. I don’t smell coffee even though I should. It’s one of the strongest smells out there. It’s diverse, but it’s not accurate like it should be. I still enjoy food greatly. I enjoy cooking a lot. But I follow the ingredients to a "T." My taste is very basic – sweet, salty, bitter, sour. I can taste all those very easily so I don’t screw up cooking that badly.
I still greatly enjoy food. I’m a fan of eating. Public Market is a good go-to. One of my favorite childhood foods was the gyro and I still love those. The Grecian Inn out on like Lily and Capitol is surprisingly really good. I was shocked how good the Greek food was. Downtown I like Mykonos a lot. I like the Hispanic district. They have fun spots. I like Rustico Pizza. Sobleman’s burgers are amazing. Cream Puffs are alright. I had one at the fair. It was amazing. That’s a once a year thing for me.
OMC: What smells do you miss?
LO: I can never smell how fresh baked cookies smell anymore. Or if someone walks into a kitchen and says "It smells so good, what are you making?" and I’ll say "It’s good it smells good." I miss those moments when you get an aroma. So many memories are tied to your sense of your smell. It’s not something I dwell on, but there’s an awareness. At first I thought it was a mistake. When it first happened I was eating something and I was frustrated – why can’t I smell this?
They were like, "oh, that must be from the head injury." I was like, "is it going to come back?" They said, "maybe." They gave me steroids and that didn’t help. Acupuncture sort of helped. Then I was like maybe I can go on "Fear Factor" and win every eating competition! I was like I could win a couple eating contests.
At first it’s a shock, to lose an actual sense. You don’t have that many of them. You don’t want to lose them. But, in term of the recovery I made, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
OMC: What is the next stop on the schedule for you?
LO: Our fall world cup trials are at the end of October here in four weeks, so those trials – you want to do well at them – like you don’t want to be so far off that there is no hope but you don’t want to be at your very best. And if they don’t go perfect, you don’t need to have that worry just because say you do awesome in the fall, do awesome in the world cups, win them – I don’t expect to win them – then you go to the Olympic Trials and don’t make the team.
You earn the country spot’s in the world cup but you don’t earn your spot until the end of December. Just doing race specific intervals. I do my first time trials next weekend. It’s good timing because everyone’s in town right now. The national team came in (Tuesday) so it’ll be fun to do time trials with everyone there and see how I’m feeling first and foremost and see where everyone else is at.
OMC: Do you have expectations for the fall and for the 2014 Winter Games?
LO: My goal for this year is to be at my best and hopefully my best is there when the time comes. I had a traumatic brain injury in 2008 and it was right before the Olympic Trials and when they came, I had tried so hard to recover, but in reality it took two years to recover, before I felt strong again. My greatest satisfaction would to be at my best. And if my best makes it happen, I’d be thrilled. That’s what I’m going after. I believe my best will make that happen.
LO: I try to have that in mind. I am proud of how much I recovered. I’m incredibly fortunate. I mean, most people who get traumatic brain injuries it’s so variable the response of recovery that all I lost I was my sense of smell. That’s not, I wouldn’t say it’s a good trade off, but in terms of what could’ve happened or where (my recovery) could’ve stopped, I’m pleased with how I’ve progressed. I was really happy for the opportunity to even have a chance to race.
Looking back on it, I am pleased with the progress of the recovery and what I learned from it most of all. The person I’ve become in that recovery I’m very happy with that. Before that I had zero patience. After my injury I had no choice but to be patient. You’re not allowed to carry more than 10 pounds. Please don’t get your heart rate over 100 beats per minute because it might cause an aneurysm and kill you. I’m like, oh.
So pretty much for the first two months all I did was stretch. And the pain of having a fractured skull sucks. It’s just so incredibly painful. You can’t escape it. You can’t ice it in the same way you could ice a sprained arm or sprained ankle.
OMC: So how did you go about recovering when there is really no road map for such an injury?
LO: It was a lot more pure patience, but also not sitting back. I stretched a ton. I got into foam rolling. I researched different protocols with nutrition, what I put into my body. A lot of foods can cause a stress response in your body, so how I could improve that. I’ve taken a lot of those eating habits with me because food alone can be great medicine or cause illness. Then I got into acupuncture.
Massage therapy helps. It helps in circulating the blood. It helps you not just recover from your muscle injuries but just keeping things moving and fresh and speed the recovery process. I wouldn’t say I’m a fast healer, but I can look at the whole picture – what possibly can I do to recover faster?
They gave me two months where I was able to return to activity, which meant another CT scan and saying "you can go as far as you want but play it by feel." So, the first time I did a lactic threshold test on the bike, where you push yourself to see how far you can really go, my head started to hurt, so I just stopped the thing because I was freaked out. I didn’t know if that was a sign of a bad thing, but I stopped the test. I couldn’t go max effort, so what could I do in-between? So I kind of played around with it.
When you break your leg, your leg atrophies and you have to build up that muscle all over again. But you fracture your skull, your head muscles aren’t going to get smaller, but I lost 16 pounds in the week I was in the ICU. I dropped all that muscle from my body. So, in my recovery, I had to kind of inch my way forward with what I could do without being fatigued. When I did weights I was sore for two weeks. I couldn’t believe I was that sore from doing a little weight workout!
OMC: What else did you look into?
LO: I looked at doing yoga, how I could get more balanced. I started researching the lines through a turn – what is the fastest trajectory through a turn and what could my technique be. There wasn’t a timeline to follow. That was what was most annoying, bottom line. It was like, OK, you’re very weak. That was the training you were doing, this is the training you can do – but even having that perspective I still pushed myself too hard trying to recover. I got super over trained, so much so to where I became anemic. It wasn’t because I needed more iron in my body, I just simply needed to rest. I was anemic and an insomniac and come the (2009) Olympic Trials you’re running on "E" when the gun goes off.
OMC: When would you say you felt totally healthy?
LO: By 2011 I would say I was back racing very consistently. I won the America’s Cup that year. So the year after the Olympic Trials I started winning races again. I won domestic races. I was ranked high enough to make the World Cup team but I didn’t have the time standards so no World Cup’s that year, but I was really pleased with the progress. I knew that if I was going to do this four more years, I could do it.
The results were there and I could beat these people, race this consistently, and handle this training load and stress. But even with those performances and those results – which back in 2007 that ma y have qualified me for the national team – I didn’t get invitations to anything. So, so I took (2012) off.
OMC: That seems like an odd decision – why?
LO: Mainly because I really had to figure out if I really wanted to skate. I wasn’t making any money. I don’t have a very wealthy to back everything. I needed to figure out, what am I doing? This isn’t going to have any kind of payout. Can you pursue it the way it needs to be pursued? I went home (to Alaska) with the intention to develop a plan and develop a purpose and to not just go through the motions for the next three years and be disappointed. If my mission was to be at my best, I knew I had to accomplish X, Y and Z to be at my best. Money doesn’t run the world but it does limit things.
I started a non-profit called Driven to Move so I started working with kids on goal setting. I’ve been working with kids since I was 18, but I kind of developed my own ideas and put them on paper on the process of goal setting. I get them on the ice, get them on bikes, get them out running, but also show them how to measure their progress versus themselves. That’s what I had to do.
With my injury, it was OK, this is where I’m at today. Maybe I can get to this point by Friday, but I don’t know. I need to do X, Y and Z by Friday to see if I can do it by Friday. Kids are very immediate gratification, so if you’re going to give them a goal, give them something they can accomplish by the end of the day, or within a couple days. That’s kind of how I took my year off.
Then this past spring, March of 2013 I did a camp here in Milwaukee with youth from Operation Dream. I got them out to the Pettit to skate with us and we all went to Ray’s Mountain Bike Park, who sponsored all the kids to use their park, which was sick. It’s fun to plan those activities and be a part of them and see where it takes them.
OMC: By teaching kids to set goals, did it motivate you to set a goal for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi?
LO: You gotta live it if you’re going to talk about it. You can talk all day long. If you’re not going to put the work in, shut up.
OMC: But that wasn’t all you needed to get back in to skating, was it?
LO: It also talking with the networks I had about who is interested in sponsoring me. I found a great sponsor with Allergy Alaska. One, they showed me how bad my allergies were and started treating me for those, which caused me be much healthier in general, but they gave me the financial support to make that positive step forward. Then Air Alaska, they also sponsored me and that gave me a huge boost. Then a lot of smaller donors back home, their generosity made so much possible.
That support gave me enough of a base to come back and say OK, I’ve got that in place to keep hustling and keep working. A hundred dollars is a lot of money. If you’re asking somebody for $5,000 or $10,000, you need to make sure you’re a very valid investment and that you’re going to deliver on what you say you will.
OMC: A lot of people don’t quite understand that athletes striving to make the Olympics aren’t getting paid and need financial help.
LO: It’s so you can afford food. Not food where you’re going to gorge yourself, but food to eat like the elite athlete you’re training to be. It’s for affording gas to drive your car. Your old car that’s currently 17 years old. I have a Subaru Outback Impreza. Love that car. My adopted aunt and uncle sold it to me when I first came to Marquette. I was 18. Now I’m 28. It’s been back and forth across the country. Almost 200,000 (miles). I’m trying to avoid getting a new transmission.
I do want to do very well and have the sponsors and support to achieve my goals, but to give so much more back either from the example I set or the activities I do with kids. Skating, you’re not going to get rich form it. After this year I want to prepare to go to (physical therapy) school so I can hopefully help people the rest of my life stay healthy and be active. That would be an 8 to 5 job. I look forward to that chance because hey, you show up everyday, work hard and you actually get paid! That would be a nice shift in life.
If you want to be an Olympic athlete, it can’t be about the money. You have to love it. What gets you up at five in the morning to enjoy the practice you’re about to do. You may not enjoy it, to be honest. Five in the morning sucks. It’s dark. It’s colder than the rest of the day. The only satisfaction is you might be doing something no one else is willing to do. No one really likes five in the morning.
If you like it, it’s because you think no one else enjoys it so you force yourself to enjoy it. The sponsors … you can’t have results without support. Bottom line. You need to have the time. You need to have the equipment. You need to have the support staff to stay healthy. You need to have the support to get the results but in order to get the support you need to have the results.
OMC: How do you pitch sponsors? And what else do you have going on that people can get involved?
LO: My approach to sponsors is more so what I do for the community. Yes, what I do on the ice and how hard I work as an athlete but very rarely is an athlete so dominant in a sport that has no market space to draw anything in. Shani Davis is the Michael Jordan of speed skating, but he’s still very low key, humble person. He doesn’t have the dollars being thrown at him like Michael Jordan.
He doesn’t have the "Air Shani" brand. He could, but how do you create a market when there is no market? By doing community events. By staying consistent with what you’re working towards. By getting creative with your marketing approach. That’s what I’m doing now with Okanjo, doing an auction to auction off new branding space (on my face). It will have great camera angles. It will have great TV time, should that moment arise. And it’ll broaden the creativity in sponsoring and marketing. Sponsors want to have their brand be seen. Every time before you start a race the zoom in on your face. When you finish it zooms in on your face.
OMC: Have you been able to find support here in Milwaukee?
LO: This is my first, really only attempt, to reach out. I haven’t really reached out at all since I graduated. This is the year of the Olympics. You have to try the branding approach. Marquette is a tremendous community with so many great alumni. Was it last spring when they had Hank Aaron talk? That was ridiculous! I was sad I was out of town for that. I would’ve shown up randomly. It would be fun to do something that makes Marquette proud but also gets before the alumni like this is what an alum does and hopefully I’m doing a good job at it. We’ll see what kind of progress I make.
Milwaukee’s the home of so much great history in speed skating. We just need to get it front of the people of Milwaukee more often. There are so many great skaters in the area. This might be the beginning of something. Let’s get more of the kids skating. You just need that constant community outreach.
The Pettit used to have 100,000 people watch races back when it was outdoor skating. Twenty below, freezing, and 100,000 people were watching speed skating. We need to make that happen again. I want to get the word out about skating, I want to get the word out about the Pettit. It’s a great facility run by wonderful people. I love the people I get a chance to train with. It’s a great community but it’s a very small community and it should be bigger.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.