From Carnegie Hall To Pyeongchang, Speedskater Heads To His First Olympic Games

Jan 21, 2018
Originally published on January 21, 2018 11:46 pm

In just a few weeks, speedskater Kimani Griffin, 27, will join a cast of Olympic first-timers in Pyeongchang. But he's no stranger to the bright lights and big stage — or to public broadcasting.

At age 17, the Winston-Salem, N.C., native was featured on the PBS program, From the Top, when he performed classical guitar at Carnegie Hall. He stepped away from playing music professionally after accepting a full scholarship to college in Georgia. But setting aside his other passion — in-line skating — wasn't as easy.

"I really enjoyed my time (at Columbus State University), but I really missed skating," Griffin says. "I really missed the world of working out and that competitive nature." He thought, "Maybe I'll move to Salt Lake and see if I can go down this path."

Eight years after taking that leap, he's back in his element. Earlier this month, Griffin's third-place finish in the 500-meter race landed him a spot on the eight-man U.S. speedskating team.

From his Brookfield, Wisc., training ground, Kimani Griffin spoke with NPR's Michelle Martin about his journey back to the joy of competitive performance — and how Gucci Mane fits into his routine.

Interview Highlights

On whether qualifying for the Olympics or his Carnegie Hall debut was more nerve-wracking

I think they're about the same. I actually wasn't too nervous or felt under pressure for either one of those experiences. I think in both experiences I was just having fun kind of in my element doing what I do.

On when he shifted his priorities from music to speedskating

Spring and summer of 2008 was kind of a big turning point in my life. I was, at that time, at the top of my game in in-line skating. And with guitar, I had just done an NPR show in Connecticut on the radio; I had just done the Carnegie Hall concert. So I was kind of in a tough spot as far as what I wanted to do in my life, what direction and path I wanted to take. I ended up getting a full-ride (scholarship) to go to school in Georgia, Columbus State University. I really enjoyed my time there, but I really missed skating, I really missed the world of working out and that competitive nature.

I was just kind of like a 19-year-old spur-of-the-moment — maybe I'll move to Salt Lake and see if I can go down this path. Music and sports have been my two outlets in life so luckily when I left school I had another passion to fall back on. I kind of took a risk and — eight years later here I am.

On the joy of speedskating

I guess for the 500 (meters), you have that 34, 35-seconds of — just time essentially stops. You're just in the moment, you can't hear anything, I mean even your coach is screaming at you on the backstretch but you can't even hear him most of the time — at least for me. And I'm just so focused in every little push, every little body angle, every movement that I'm doing to propel myself forward. And then when I cross the line, all of the sudden I hear people screaming and I look at the clock and, hopefully it's a time that I want to see.

NPR's Cara Reedy and Dustin Desoto produced the audio for this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're starting to turn our attention to the Winter Olympics. They're just a few weeks away. So now is the time to get to know some of the athletes who will be representing Team USA next month in South Korea. Let's start with Kimani Griffin. He is a speed skater. This will be his first Olympic Games, but he is no stranger to the bright lights and big stage or to public broadcasting. That's because Kimani Griffin, a decade ago, at 17, was featured playing classical guitar at Carnegie Hall on the PBS program "From The Top At Carnegie Hall."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FROM THE TOP AT CARNEGIE HALL")

KIMANI GRIFFIN: (Playing guitar).

MARTIN: Now he is preparing for the big trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea. We reached Kamani Griffin via Skype in Brookfield, Wis., where he is training. Welcome. Congratulations.

GRIFFIN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for reaching out and having me on your show.

MARTIN: Qualifying must be incredibly nerve wracking, but you know I have to ask was it more or less nerve-wracking than making your Carnegie Hall debut?

GRIFFIN: I think they were about the same. I actually wasn't too nervous or felt under pressure for either one of those experiences. I think in both experiences, I was just having fun kind of in my element doing what I do.

MARTIN: When did you decide to jump into speed skating or to make that your priority over music?

GRIFFIN: Spring and summer of 2008 was kind of a big turning point in my life. I was, at that time, at the top of my game in skating and - inline skating, I should say - and with guitar. I was - I had just done an NPR show in Connecticut on the radio. I had just done the Carnegie Hall concert. So I was kind of in a tough spot as far as what I wanted to do with my life - what direction and paths I wanted to take. And I ended up getting a full ride to go to school in Georgia - Columbus State University.

I really enjoyed my time there. I - but I just - I don't know - I really missed skating. I really missed the world of working out and that competitive nature. And I was just kind of, like, a 19-year-old spur of the moment - maybe I'll move to Salt Lake and see if I can go down this path. Music and sports have been my two outlets in life. So luckily, when I left school, I kind of had another passion to fall back on and, I kind of took a risk. And eight years later, here I am.

MARTIN: Just briefly for those of us who aren't as familiar with, say, speed skating as we might be with other sports, tell us a little bit about the the joy of it.

GRIFFIN: Just - I guess for the 500, you have that 34, 35 seconds of just - time essentially stops. Like, you're just in the moment. You can't hear anything. I mean, even your coach is screaming at you on the backstretch, but you can't even hear him most of the time - at least for me. And I'm just, like, so focused in every little push, every little body angle, every movement that I'm doing to propel myself forward. And then when I cross the line, all of a sudden, I hear people screaming, and I look at the clock, and hopefully it's time that I want to see.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, you know I'm going to ask this. What music do you listen to get pumped up?

GRIFFIN: Before my race, when I'm kind of in the infield in the middle of the track, I enjoy listening to Gucci Mane. That kind of pumps me up. But Gucci's my go-to guy (laughter) before I race.

MARTIN: That's Kimani Griffin. He will be representing Team USA in long track speed skating the Winter Olympics. Kimani Griffin, thank you so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you.

GRIFFIN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALL")

GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) I crash into your wall. Tijuana Cartel man, they killed him in the car. He think he invincible, think he above the law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.