Alison Dudek
(photo curtesy the United States Olympic Committee)

When Alyson Dudek burst through the door of her family’s home on March 23, it was a big surprise. They hadn’t expected her to get back to Wisconsin from Europe so soon after the conclusion of her speed skating season.

What wasn’t a surprise was Dudek, her parents and her two sisters worshipping together the following Sunday at St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners.

“It’s really nice to go with my family,” Dudek said. “It’s better than going with my teammates.”

Dudek, 19, has forgone family and her parish for the past two and a half years after moving to Utah to train. The sacrifice paid off with a bronze medal in the recent Olympics in the short-track 3,000-meter relay.

“My own talent and commitment to the sport, to make it to the Olympics and walk away from the Olympics with a medal – I thank God I had the strength to make it that far,” she said.

Dudek grew up in Hales Corners and attended her parish school even while launching her athletic career. She can’t even remember exactly how old she was when she began skating at the Pettit National Ice Center, but figures she was 6 or 7. Her sisters Maddie, now 23, and Carolyn, 16, both skated for a couple of years before moving on to other pursuits.

By the time she was in seventh grade, Dudek often needed to miss a day of school to travel to weekend competitions. She later attended Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, where “they definitely remember me because I was gone for weeks at a time.” Tim Trokan, her guidance counselor, and theology teacher Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Linda Surette continue to stay in contact, even sending several congratulatory and supportive e-mails during the Olympics.

“Watching her on TV was amazing. She was doing what she wanted to do and doing it well. That’s all I want for any of my students … do what you love and do it well,” Sr. Linda said in an e-mail to your Catholic Herald. “She has her mind and body always working toward a set goal. I wish we all had such passion for our goals in life. She inspires me to put my energy to good use each day.”

Some speed skaters opt for home schooling – in fact, several of this year’s Olympians took that route – but Dudek desperately wanted to stay at DSHA. In the fall of her senior year, however, the disappointment of not qualifying for international competitions led her to move to Utah to train with the national team. She earned her diploma through a correspondence school.

“I find myself
praying before a race or practice and I don’t even think about it – it’s just
natural for me
to do that.”
Alyson Dudek

“I still consider DSHA my high school,” she said. “I made lifelong friends there. When I was in Vancouver, they’d shoot me an e-mail or text (saying), ‘Good luck! I’ll be watching your race tomorrow.’ They were so happy for me.”

When Dudek first moved to the Salt Lake City area, she rented a room from a Mormon family and quickly realized it would be more difficult to attend Mass. Not only is the Salt Lake metro population smaller than Milwaukee’s, it’s also less Catholic as evidenced by about 20 parishes in or near Salt Lake City compared to nearly 100 in Milwaukee County.

“I wasn’t surrounded by my faith anymore like I was every day when I lived (at home),” she said. “It’s really hard to find a Catholic church. In Salt Lake, there’s a Mormon church on every corner.”

Within a couple months, Dudek was living on her own and becoming more familiar with the area. She now shares a place with a couple of other speed skaters, and reports that most of the skaters who go to church are Catholic, giving her a core group with whom to attend Mass.

“We found one church we went to a few times that I wasn’t exactly keen on,” she said. “We found another one that’s almost a half-hour away, and that’s kind of challenging to get to all the time, especially when our only day off (from training) is Sunday, and all we want to do is lay in our beds and not do anything.”

Still, Dudek realizes that she has a strong prayer life, even when she’s wearing skates and a protective helmet.

“I find myself praying before a race or practice and I don’t even think about it – it’s just natural for me to do that,” she said.

With its pack of skaters speeding around the tight corners of a hockey rink, Dudek calls short-track “one of the most dangerous sports on two feet.” That point was driven home at the Olympic Trials when J.R. Celski crashed and sustained a serious cut to his leg caused by his own skate blade.

“When I saw that, right away my faith came back into my head,” said Dudek. Celski recovered to win Olympic bronze in the 1,500 meters.

Besides her bronze medal in the relay, Dudek also finished 13th individually in the 500 meters – not bad for one of the youngest skaters on the American team.

She returned to Salt Lake City in May to launch her training for the 2014 Games and wants to fit in some courses next fall at the University of Utah. Her off-season break included a family vacation to Florida and the U.S. Olympic team’s visit to the White House on April 21.

Dudek was excited to have appearances scheduled at several schools in the Milwaukee area because she wants to encourage students to try speed skating – both to build the sport’s numbers and to help kids make good choices.

“Because I started skating so young and this became my lifestyle, I never put myself into a situation where I was peer-pressured into drinking or drugs or anything,” she said.