FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 11/16/2022
CONTACT: Jon Lundin, Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games Head of Communications & Media ([email protected]) Tel: 518-637-6885
By: Meri-Jo Borzilleri, Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games’ Organizing Committee
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Speed skater Judy Spraggs (now Smouter) did not medal in any of her five races at the Lake Placid 1972 FISU World University Games. In fact, she fell in two of them. But the FISU Games, she says, were “a highlight in my skating career” and the most consequential competition of her life.
When she fell in the second race, the 1,500 meters, on soft ice from warm weather, the fates – and a nearby Dutch speed skating coach – were looking out for her. Smouter was sprawled on the ice, fuming, then she discovered a coach alongside her.
“He helped me up and asked, `Are you OK? That was a bad fall,’” Smouter writes in her memoir. She said she was all right, having just bumped her knee.
The Dutch coach introduced himself as Cees (pronounced “Case”) and helped her off the ice to the warming hut, next to the outdoor rink in front of the high school, off Lake Placid’s Main Street.
He offered to have one of his Dutch team members, a talented skater and skate-sharpening expert named Harm Kuipers, check out her blades. He did, and properly sharpened them. Smouter would not fall on that ice again;, however, she and Cees would fall for each other.
Cees, Smouter and Kuipers hung out during the Lake Placid 1972 FISU Games, where she also befriended Russian skaters and others in the midst of the Cold War. “With the Russians, even though we couldn’t communicate with words, we did it by using hand signals,” she said.
Speed skaters, numbering about 40 of the 500 or so athletes at the FISU Games, were housed at the Lake Placid Club on Mirror Lake, a short walk to the outdoor James C. Sheffield Speed Skating Oval.
“My living quarters were gorgeous; everything was made from wood. I loved the rustic look,” Smouter wrote. “The snow piled up on the trees and buildings made this winter wonderland look magical. The smell of freshly fallen snow and wood burning in fireplaces was an appealing fragrance that any winter sports person would appreciate.”
The FISU Games was a turning point in Smouter’s career. She was 21, a student at Michigan State University, and a member of the U.S. national team who came up short in making the 1972 Olympic team. An endurance skater, she had taken a leave of absence from MSU to train but failed to make a loaded team that would include future stars and Olympic medalists like Sheila Young, Leah Poulos, Diane Holum and Anne Henning.
“I was disappointed,” Smouter said. “I was to the point where, OK, I think that’s it for my skating career. And then the FISU Games opportunity came up, and that was so exciting, because I consider that as a mini-Olympics (with) college students, with all sports represented. That fueled my desire to keep skating. And then when I got there, it was just a great experience.”
Skating in the FISU Games in March, Smouter felt like the pressure was off. She had re-enrolled at MSU, carrying a full course load, and brought her schoolwork to Lake Placid. At the FISU Games, she would compete as best she could, but would also socialize and embrace the experience of the multisport event that drew university students and delegates from all over the world.
Smouter learned that Cees worked for the Dutch State Police and coached skaters in his free time. Kuipers was studying to become a physician. He had qualified for the 1972 Sapporo Olympics but declined because he didn’t want to miss his college classes, choosing the FISU Games instead. He would go on to become the World All-round Champion in 1975.
“Their stories were so fascinating,” Smouter said. “I told them that I was very impressed with how great the Dutch skaters were. They were considered the best in the world.”
By the time the Games ended, Cees would invite her to train in Holland. The invitation was “a dream come true.” Speed skating with the Dutch was like being a skier and training with the Austrians. It would be an opportunity to see how far her skating could take her.
Smouter accepted the offer, training in Assen, a city in northeastern Netherlands near the German border, where Cees coached a provincial club. She returned the next winter and her times were improving. In December 1973, Cees proposed to her before a 1,500-meter race, right at the start line. They were married the following July and Smouter moved to the Netherlands. But prior to the next Olympic Trials for the 1976 Innsbruck Games, she decided her times didn’t compare any more. “I guess I couldn’t balance marriage and skating,” she said.
Meanwhile, Cees had been hired as the Italian national coach and was gone during the winters. Smouter would sometimes join him, But Holland was Smouter’s home base until she convinced Cees to move to the U.S., outside Detroit, in 1980. By that time, they had a three-year-old son, the first of two children. Cees “was nice enough to give it a try. It was not easy to transition because in 1980, it was the recession. But we made it work and all worked out well.”
Smouter had a teaching degree, and later got her Master’s in exercise physiology, eventually partnering with other students to start a business running corporate fitness and wellness programs. Cees, a massage therapist, would ultimately run the department for the Detroit Athletic Club and continued to coach locally.
Smouter and Cees, both retired, still live in Shelby Township outside Detroit. Smouter worked as a physical education teacher, then as a student services administrator in the Wayne County Community College District.
Never far from the ice, she taught many skating programs and camps, teaching people in the community to skate. In her 50s, she took figure skating lessons and wound up coaching off-ice strength and conditioning to figure skaters. She also started playing ice hockey. Then, she returned to speedskating, this time in short-track, competing and helping with off-ice conditioning.
This spring, now 72, Smouter returned to race in Lake Placid for the first time since those long-ago FISU Games and set age group short-track records while skating in the Olympic Center.
She is excited the FISU Games are back in Lake Placid. Nearly 50 years ago, those Games – and one fortuitous fall – changed her life. “It was a highlight in my skating career,” she said. “It shaped my whole future because I met Cees there.”
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