By: Bobby Lewis
Denton Live July-Dec 2011
In 2002, Jordan Malone was lying in a Switzerland hospital with 16 screws and four titanium plates holding his face together. Inline speed skaters are used to injuries, but this injury felt different. Earlier in the year, while competing, he had slipped and twisted his leg, keeping him off skates for four months. He had been eager to get back on skates, or to be honest, even to walk again. It was the longest Jordan had ever been off skates since age 5 when he was still on “quads” – skates with two wheels in the front and two in the back.
Now at 18 years old, he was in yet another hospital bed, far from home. During a race in Zurich, he had tripped over a cord and smashed his face into an unpadded timing box. “If you can imagine the skull, to take the jaw off the skull, and you know the upper part of the jaw right underneath the nose and it’s kind of protruding, right? Imagine that whole piece coming off,” Jordan says. “After I broke my face, I lost four teeth, I broke my upper and lower jaw. I can move my face with my jaw. I’m like, This is messed up. I’m done. This is stupid. I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself.”
He was thinking, he says, of quitting – quitting the one thing that had gotten his asthma under control, that had helped him deal with his dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. That self-doubt lasted … well … here’s how he puts it: “I’m in a hospital all by myself in a foreign country and then five minutes later, I’m like, No, no way. This isn’t gonna keep me from skating. Even when the worst reared its ugly head, I never had any doubts that I was a speed skater.”
His mother, Peggy Aitken, was in Denton when she got the call that Jordan was in intensive care 5,000 miles away. “I had to get on the next flight to Switzerland, but I was fortunate enough to have been able to talk to him before I left, so I knew that he was conscious,” she says. “I still didn’t know the extent of his injury. The plane ride was pretty scary.”
Now 27 years old, Jordan Malone has endured more injuries than most can comprehend in his 21 years of skating. He’s torn a ligament in his knee, broken an ankle, and, of course, there’s that broken face of his. As a kid, he started skating at a local roller rink. By the time he turned 20, he was about as accomplished as an inline speed skater could be. Then in 2004 – just two years after his disastrous Swiss accident – he switched to ice. With typical determination, he managed to become Olympic material within six years, winning a bronze medal in the 5,000-meter speed skating relay in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. All this from a kid in Denton, Texas – not exactly world headquarters for skating on ice.
Jordan now spends his days as a mostly anonymous face on the campus of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, one of the schools in the United States that offers free schooling to Olympic athletes. His tenacity and never-say-quit attitude comes from his mother. His father has not been in contact with Jordan since he was 2. “I know you hear a lot of stories about a lot of kids growing up and their dad’s not around and they miss their dad,” Jordan says. “But, you know, I never really had that problem. I really had a super mom.”
His mom’s challenge was to keep up with a kid who was always on the go. In elementary school, Jordan skated to class every morning with his mom following in her car. He’d start at their house, get off the skates and into her car around busy I-35, then he would hop back out to skate the last mile to McNair Elementary School. The same routine would go on the next day, the next day and the next. He skated in empty parking lots (and once got chased by cops because of it). Pretty soon, it became apparent to the 40-something Peggy that she needed a way to keep up with her always-on-the-go son. “I honestly don’t think he could have accomplished what he has had we had the traditional family,” says Peggy, who worked full time selling accounting software.
At first, when Jordan was 11 or 12, Peggy says she tried to keep up on skates. (“Of course, I blew her away on the skates,” Jordan says.) She then moved onto a bike, which she thought was going to be fast enough to stay with her pre-teen. (“And then in a few weeks, I was blowing her away on the bike.”) Finally, Peggy found the solution in the form of a battered 1970s turquoise moped. “When he needed more speed work, I would go as fast as I could [on the moped], then he would skate behind me,” Peggy says. “But that didn’t last for very long because he outskated the moped.”
Eventually, Jordan needed more help – professional help – not easy to find in Denton. His first coach, Charlie Lucas, taught Jordan until he was 10 but then moved to Waco to set up a skating empire there. Charlie’s son-in-law, Chris Tidwell, took over in Denton. “Everybody at first thought, Oh man, who’s this little kid? He’s not going to do anything. But Chris sort of gave me what I needed to do; just enough so that, you know, he could figure out that I was a character and … I had what it took.” Then Chris left Denton for Waco, too.
After Jordan’s coaches left, Jordan decided he didn’t want to skate with DFW Speed Club, his local inline team, so Chris started making training programs for Jordan. For 10 years, Jordan and his mom would drive down to Waco every Sunday for technical advice. His mom saw the drives not as a hardship, but as a time to be cherished. “We drove to Waco every weekend and those were all hours where we just talked and talked and talked,” she says. To get the training he needed, Jordan ended up spending summers in Waco, too, staying with speed skater Chip Filler, who remembers watching Jordan. “He was real, real little, much smaller than everyone he was skating against and he was real fast,” Chip says. “I remember thinking there was nothing that he wasn’t going to do to get to the top.”
That determination was there from the beginning. At age 10, Jordan was already entering international skating competitions. He won his first international inline skating competition in France – the Trois Pistes (French for three tracks) – and kept on winning. He made his first World Team for inline skating in 2000 and turned pro in 2001. “I had a really injury-plagued year in 2002, so I’m like, Oh man, I should move over, you know, I should go to ice. But, I wasn’t done. I had to finish everything I wanted to do. Luckily I was able to really put the hammer down and I won world championships in 2003 and that’s kind of the ceiling for every other sport that doesn’t have an Olympics. So, I did all I could do in inline sports and then I moved on.”
When he won the Senior World Championships, he was the fastest man in the inline world. When he left inline speed skating, he had amassed a total of eight Junior and six Senior World Championship titles.
Ironically, it was during his injury downtime that Jordan went to see Apolo Anton Ohno, the eight-time Olympic medalist speed skater, in the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I was just like, Man, this dude is just doing it up, you know, this is great. There’s something so fantastic about Olympic glory and it’s contagious.”
Within two years of becoming an ice speed skater, Malone was competing to be a teammate of Ohno’s for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Then, disaster struck again. Jordan broke his ankle a few weeks before the trials. He skated, but did not qualify. “Having that taste in your mouth and having it ripped away, it’s pretty hurtful,” Jordan says of his failed bid for the 2006 Turin Games. “But, I’m not the first one to sit back and go, Oh, poor me, you know. I sit back and go, It won’t happen again.”
Jordan has never been able to put into words why the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics were so special for him. After everything he had been through, the 5-foot-6, 140-pound dynamo was in the Olympics – except he almost missed his opportunity a second time.
In October 2009, one month after qualifying for the 2010 Games, he was at a birthday party with teammates when the host brought out a sumo costume. “It’s not like we were, I don’t know, partying or doing dumb [expletive] on a skateboard or something like that,” Jordan says. “I was wrestling my coach at a birthday party.” While they were trying to knock each other down, Jordan took a step back and his knee gave out. He had torn his ACL, one of the major ligaments of the knee. And just like that, the Olympics were in jeopardy again.
Amazingly, he recovered quickly enough to win the bronze medal in the 5,000-meter relay with Ohno, Simon Cho, Travis Jayner and J.R. Celski. The United States was in fourth place for most of the race, but a late push past the Chinese team put the team on the podium. “That’s the icing on top of my resume. It’s the thing that will follow me around forever,” Jordan says. “You know, I’m here at the Olympic Training Center and everybody goes, That’s the Olympic medalist. So, yeah, that precedes my name. It’s not Jordan Malone, the Olympic medalist. It’s The Olympic medalist Jordan Malone.”
After he won his medal, Jordan did the same thing he’s done after every important race he’s competed in since he made his first World team: He found his mother and hugged her. “He ran all the way across the rink, he scaled the wall, then he came up to give me a hug,” Peggy says. “I was way up at the top and everybody yelled, so I ran down the stairs and he gave me a great, big old hug and put his medal around my neck.”
As a freshman, he touts a 4.0 GPA in electrical engineering, but he’s not sure when he’ll graduate because of the six to 10 hours he needs to train each day for the 2014 Winter Olympics. “We don’t have any time for anything else. You know, after you’re done training, you’re dead. You’re just wanting to get food and rest. Nobody wants to do school or anything like that.”
He’s developed a wisdom about life – and competing – because of his accidents. “You have to have the ability to change what you can and accept what you can’t. I really live my life by that. Do your best and then you let fate take the rest, you know? I try to stay extremely positive. We choose to be happy or we choose to be unhappy. Simple as that.”