LAKE PLACID - Becoming a world-class speedskater is a long journey that stretches over many years. Esther Munoz would certainly attest to that. Right now, she's in the middle of that trek, and so far, she is on track.
After graduating from Lake Placid High School in 2016, Munoz moved to Utah at the end of last summer to train full time with a top-notch speedskating program. By leaving home, stepping out on her own and investing all her energy into the sport of long-track, Munoz got a stride closer to accomplishing her dream of becoming an Olympian someday.
The past season marked the final year of junior eligibility for Munoz, which also meant the 19-year-old was staring down one last shot at achieving her most immediate goal of qualifying for her first Junior World Championships. The road wasn't easy, but Munoz got the job done, and was one of 10 of America's top young men and women speedskaters who competed in February at the 2017 ISU Junior World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
"The past year was definitely rocky at times," Munoz said. "But it was the first year being somewhere else away from home. There were a lot of things to get used to - a new team, a new coach, living on my own. Everybody says it's the toughest the first year. It's not always going to be the best. You're just trying to get on your feet, get used to everything, and I think overall, I've gotten stronger."
In Finland, Munoz skated in four individual events - 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 meters - and two team relays, which were a sprint and a pursuit. Although the results weren't what she was looking for, the championships provided an opportunity to see how she stacked up against the best young talent in the world.
"The important thing was getting there," Munoz said. "I'm glad that I was there for the experience, I'm glad I made the world team. It definitely gave me a good inside on what I need to focus on."
Munoz certainly earned her spot on the world team after finishing second overall for the women at the U.S. junior national championships in January. The competition served as the world qualifier and was held at the site where Munoz trains, at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. During three days of competition, Munoz established personal records in three of the four events in which she skated: the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races.
Now, Munoz is back in Lake Placid enjoying a break after the first winter living on her own. The vacation will be a short one, however. On Easter Sunday, she's heading back out west to begin her first intensive summer of off-season training under Tucker Fredricks, a three-time Olympian who now coaches elite speedskaters with the FAST Team Program.
"The thing about living in Utah, the reason I went there, is we have ice a lot longer and I also have a bigger team to push me - a bunch of guys and a couple girls. Having all that around me really helps," she said. "It's going to be kind of a new beginning. It's my first year doing summer training with the team I'm with now. I'm pretty excited for that because I'll get to train really hard and see how that sets me up for the season."
She said the best part of off-season training will be biking, which tops the list of her favorite physical activities away from the ice.
"A lot of the skaters do inline, but not me," she said. "I know we're going to do biking a lot, a lot of dry land training. Biking is basically the main thing that will help with everything, and I like that. It's fun."
Munoz was born into a military family in Germany and started skating at age 10. She made the move to the United States when her father was transferred to Fort Drum, and shortly after, became a resident of Lake Placid in order to continue her pursuit of sport of speedskating. She said the top speedskaters, those who make it to the Olympics, are normally in their late 20s and early 30s, which puts her about about halfway there beginning from the time she first took up the sport.
This past winter, the carrot dangling in front of Munoz was getting to the junior world championships. An immediate goal like that isn't there in the near future, and she said the next step is landing a spot on the senior national team. Munoz admitted that could be something that happens well in the future, which means she'll have to take small strides along the way.
"I just want to keep shaving off times as fast as possible," she said. "More personal bests are what I'm looking for. Of course I want to make the senior national team, but that will take a lot. It's my next goal, but I have to reach a lot of smaller goals before I can achieve that.
"It's going be hard this year, but I'm not going to be negative. The reality right now is I'm not going to make the national team this year."
Although making the senior team is a longshot, one that could stretch over the next few seasons, Munoz said she is very focused on her dream of speedskating in the Olympics. Realizing that she is still a youngster in the sport makes pursuing that long-term goal a little bit easier.
"The Olympics, the senior team, that's ultimately what I'm looking for," she said. "The love for the sport is really driving me. I just love to beat anybody who is in my way. I try to train as hard as I can to get better than them. It's a natural drive. I love where I am right now, and I'm really excited about training. I can definitely see myself excelling at skating for sure if I keep it up."