People

Competition was a way of life for Detroit speed skater

Omelenchuk trains on Belle Isle for a senior event in 1986.

Jeanne (Robinson) Omelenchuk’s speed skating victory in the 1948 Detroit News City Championships was all it took to give the 17-year-old senior from Detroit’s Southeastern High School the racing bug.

“It was a night meet under the lights on Belle Isle and the trophy was about six inches high,” she recalls. “Nothing can beat the excitement I felt that day when I won my first race.”

 Omelenchuk proudly clutches here trophy after winning the Great Lakes Speed Skating Championship at Milwaukee in 1962.Omelenchuk proudly clutches here trophy after winning the Great Lakes Speed Skating Championship at Milwaukee in 1962.

 

From that point on she set out to make herself a champion by hard training and tough determination. It paid off with a 43-year speed skating career full of national, North American and senior women titles as well as three Olympic berths. She won more titles than any other speed skater in the history of the sport in Detroit.

It was not an easy career. Despite her victory in the city championships the year before, at 18 she was only an average skater. Defeat followed defeat. “I’ll make it someday,” she told her coach. In 1952 she placed second in a major competition and she was on her way to becoming a champion.

Her first national crown was not in skating, however, but in cycling.

She started cycling because other skaters recommended it as a way to keep in form when off the ice. The two sports go together because they use the same muscles.

Not only was she successful on ice but also on the bicycle with a long string of cycling titles. At the age of 25 Omelenchuk held the distinction of being the first to be a champion in two sports.

Between competitions, Omelenchuk found time to graduate from Wayne State University and become an art teacher at Columbus Junior High on Detroit’s east side. Her life was a whirlwind of art, skating and cycling.

She found time for romance by combining it with competition — she eventually married her trainer and coach, George Omelenchuk. George, a watchmaker and later owner of a sporting goods store, also was a speed skater and cyclist. He competed in both sports for 15 years, qualifying for the 1947 Olympic trials in speed skating and racking up numerous titles.

He gave up competing in 1957 to help his wife win, coaching her to berths on the U.S. Olympic speed skating team three times. He kept her skates sharpened, kept track of how she was doing on each lap of a race and tipped her off on ice conditions as well as opponents.

“When I first started skating I guess I was pretty sick,” said Omelenchuk in a 1955 Detroit News interview. “I had no style; old timers told George there was no use trying to make a skater out of me!”

In 1959 Omelenchuk was the only American invited to compete in the World Championship held in Siberia –but she couldn’t come up with the $2,000 to get there. She could have gone alone for much less but she wouldn’t consider going without her husband.

“My chances are 100 percent better if he goes with me,” she said. “I can’t skate without him. I get nervous.”

At age 27, the art teacher won the national speed skating championship and won a place on the American Women’s 1960 Winter Olympic team at Squaw Valley.

This was the first time skating for women was on the Olympic program, and Omelenchuk was the country’s number one prospect.

George Omelenchuk checks out his wife's bicycle prior to an event in 1954.

George Omelenchuk checks out his wife’s bicycle prior to an event in 1954.

 

However thrilling making the Olympic team was for Omelenchuk, it also presented problems for her. The Olympic Team would not allow her to defend her National and North American titles, citing the possibility of defeat or injury.

Through a mix up in communication, Omelenchuk thought she had permission to compete in the World Championships in Sweden, in order to get her used to European style competition ( in American competition the skaters race in a pack, in European and Olympic styles the skaters compete against the clock and one opponent). Omelenchuk competed in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters in Sweden and almost got herself kicked off the Olympic team. Officials said she had been told that she could not compete anywhere before the Olympic Games.

That was only the beginning of trouble for Omelenchuk surrounding the 1960 Olympics.

The U. S. women skaters did poorly at the 1960 Olympics and blamed their coaches and managers for not working with them. Omelenchuk assumed the role as spokesperson and was vocal in her charges of neglect. In turn the coaches accused her of being a bad sport and blamed her poor showing on her skating style and the fact that she had been 10 days late to practice.

Despite her dismal showing at Squaw Valley, Omelenchuk was determined to make the 1964 Olympic team.

Her criticism of coaches brought Omelenchuk a suspension for one year. Head coach Ed Schroeder called Omelenchuk “a publicity seeker.” She was charged with insubordination and taking part in a meet after being warned not to and for making critical remarks regarding the coaching of the women’s team.

The year-long suspension was also effective in cycling, keeping her out of both sports.

Omelenchuk stayed in condition by keeping up her rigorous cycling and skating regimen, cycling 300 to 400 miles a week.

 During her suspension Omelenchuk kept up a rigorous training program to stay in shape.

During her suspension Omelenchuk kept up a rigorous training program to stay in shape.

 

At the end of her suspension she returned to competition determined to excel. She regained both the National and North American senior women skating titles over a one week period. She missed making the team for the 1964 Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, by seconds in the final trials, but came back at age 36 to make the ’68 team. And at age 40 she went to the ‘72 games at Sapporo, Japan.

Omelenchuck never won an Olympic medal; her best finish was 11th in the 3,000 meters in the ’68 games.

She does wonder what she could have accomplished with the type of training facilities available now, or if women’s speed skating had been an Olympic sport earlier in her career.

“They did not have an Olympic team for me until 1960,” she says. “The area of accomplishment then was National championships and North American championships and records. I won more national and North American titles than any person in the history of the sport.”

Omelenchuk doesn’t dwell on what-ifs — she is still happy to be able to put on her skates and do a few laps on the Belle Isle ice like she did when she was 17.

“I would be on the ice even if there were no competition,” she said. “It’s a fun thing to do.”

Omelenchuk was inducted into the Wayne State University Athletes Hall of Fame in 1979 and was the third woman inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. The Omelenchucks are the only husband and wife team in the Michigan Amateur Athletic Hall of Fame. She was inducted in 1981, he in 1983. In 1993 she was inducted into the Michigan’s Women’s Hall of Fame.

Omelenchuk served on the Warren City Council in 1987 and stepped down in November 1997. Her husband, George, died in 1994.

Even in 1997 at the age of 65, Omelenchuk continued to win awards. She won four events in Group IV (60 years old division) of the Master’s International World Speed Skating Championships. Her 32.5 seconds in the 300 meters is a Group IV world record.

Omelenchuk, left, easily stays in front of the pack as she defends her senior division women's championship in Milwaukee in 1963.

Omelenchuk, left, easily stays in front of the pack as she defends her senior division women’s championship in Milwaukee in 1963.

 

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Mary Bailey / The Detroit News