Champaign man channeling passion from Olympic chase in coaching

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Champaign, Ill. (WAND) -- He would forever be labeled an Olympic long shot before he even laced up his skates.

That won't make Thursday's long track speed skating medal round any less bittersweet for Champaign's Theron Sands.

The 53-year-old accountant will be watching from afar, knowing how close he came to the improbable.

"Nothing short of the hardest thing I've ever done," said Sands, able to reflect on a second chance, and chasing a goal for more than a decade.

It was early in the week at C-U Under Construction, a day when Sands was working the books for the 21-employee business in Champaign County. The peeled-off layers of "USA" gear - a knit cap, jacket, and gloves - reveal a tall, thin, gray-haired man. His day job, staring at a computer screen, might fit any preconceived notions you'd have about him.

By night, he's working out at the gym or strapping on skates at the University of Illinois Ice Arena.

Again, if you're drawing conclusions, you figure he's a 50-something with a hobby. That is, until you see him flash around the turns of the rink's 110-meter oval.

Sands has spent much of the last decade working tirelessly at a shot at the Olympics, and after missing a shot at Sochi in 2014, Sands trained even harder for a shot at PyeongChang.

That, in itself, is not unique. Stories of Olympic dreams are often filled with around-the-clock training, neglected family members, and close-but-not-quite results.

Sands, however, had already essentially experienced a cycle of his life familiar to many of us. He competed in sports as a kid, and roller skated competitively into his 20s. Then, he had kids of his own. He took work where he could to support the family, hopping cities as an Air Force contractor, a draftsman, then with a chemical company, and a non-profit. He got a fine art degree at the University of Illinois in his 30s.

He put on weight, topping out at almost 270 pounds.

What happened next changed the course of the next decade-and-a-half for Sands.  His manager at the chemical company invited him to roller skate, figuring a little athletic activity could help him lose weight.

Sands reconnected with his love skating.

"Weight came off," he said. "I got faster. I went to nationals, won nationals a couple of times."

A local speed skating coach saw his potential on the ice, and invited Sands to the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, an official U.S. Olympic training facility.

"I stepped on that ice and thought, I'm going to do this," said Sands.

If "this" was an unrelenting obsession, he was right.

For years now, Sands' weekly routine has included three days at home, using "home" loosely. He's usually at work, at the gym, at the rink, or asleep.

The other four days, he's in Milwaukee training.

The restless work ethic has his kids talking about him like a distant memory.

"We wish we had more time with him," said son Timothy Sands, "but that's just kind of the price he pays."

"To be competitive at this level of sports, you sacrifice everything," said Theron. "You sacrifice relationships. You sacrifice family, downtime."

You don't need to tell that to June Barth, Sands' girlfriend.

"It's difficult, but I knew what I was signing up for," said Barth, who serves - in passing - as Sands' nutritionist, laundry-sorter, and unwavering supporter.

Barth says she was ready - even expecting - to be in South Korea, having fast-tracked a passport and requested the time off work.

Sands' story, however, will be the best Olympic tale not told in 2018.

Last month, competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials - an improbable feat in and of itself - Sands missed a victory in the 10,000 meter by less than 10 seconds. He missed out on a spot at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, in part, by virtue of the fact that there weren't any open spots on the team.

The work didn't stop.

Three weeks after the trials, Sands set a world record in the 5,000 meter masters division (50-55 years old) at AmCup 2 in Milwaukee.

Sands' future will likely include those types of events from here on out. He says, however, he has no plans to chase the Olympic dream again in 2022.

"I feel like I deserve to give (June) some of my time back," he said.

"I'm a little nervous, actually," laughed Barth. "I am excited, but I'm nervous. I don't know what real life will look like for us, because seeing him three days a week has been our life for years."

Sands says he has plenty of wisdom to pass on, and will do so as a coach moving forward.

He'll be a constant reminder to local skaters with sky high aspirations: It's never too late to give it a try.

"I think I have an insight as to what it is to get to this level, obviously," said Sands. "If there are people that ask for my help and need my help, I'm going to do what i can to help them."

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