SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — In the midst of a hot summer, long-track speedskater Heather Richardson took to the ice, only not as some might expect.
She showed up at the Utah Olympic Oval with a used pair of skates from a local Play It Again Sports store, knee pads and a stick supplied by coach Ryan Shimabukuro.
It may seem an unusual coaching technique to outsiders, yet the emphasis on quick starts through hockey is one of the reasons Richardson is off to a record-setting season heading into this weekend's World Sprint Championships.
"Obviously, there's going to be pressure," Richardson said of competing against the world's best. "I want to do the best I can, and know what I can do now. I'm really excited to see how everything plays out. I'm so happy it's here in Salt Lake."
The last time Richardson skated at the Olympic oval in the Salt Lake City suburb of Kearns, she broke a national record every time she raced — in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500.
Four races — two each in the 500 and 1,000 — will determine the overall champion this weekend.
China's Yu Jing won the women's overall title last year, winning the 500 and taking second to Canadian Olympic champ Christine Nesbitt in the 1,000.
Richardson was sixth overall.
"This year I'm way stronger than I was last year," Richardson said. "I'm definitely hoping for a podium. That's something we'll have to wait and see."
While Shimabukuro pushed the hour-long pseudo hockey games — they used a plastic ball and agreed upon no checking — he said it's no coincidence Richardson is having such success now that she's finally healthy.
The summer after her sixth-place finish in the 500 at the Vancouver Olympics, she broke her collar bone. That season she also battled a lower-back injury so bad she required a cortisone shot before the 2011 World Sprint Championships.
Last season, she was overcoming surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her knee.
"This is the first year she's been healthy," Shimabukuro said.
He also said Richardson, a former inline skater, is finally learning how to race tactically.
The 1,000 meters has always been Richardson's bread-and-butter event, and success has been easier to attain.
The 500 is all about starts and Richardson was giving up three- to four-tenths of a second in the first 100 meters to top competitors.
That's down to about two-tenths of a second now, but Richardson knows it can be better.
"Starts are probably one of the most awkward things (coming) from inline," she said. "Every start feels like I've never done one start before."
Her success in World Cup competition last weekend in Calgary should give her momentum heading back to Utah, where her mom and aunt will cheer her on.
The High Point, N.C., native won both 1,000s in Calgary, though reigning 1,000-meter world record holder Nesbitt chose not to race the second 1,000 to rest for this weekend. Richardson also took silver in both 500s. In the second, she lost to South Korea's Lee Sang-hwa, who shattered the world record by covering the distance in 36.80 seconds to break the previous record set by Jing (36.94). Richardson lost to Jing in the first 500.
Still, Richardson's time of 37.12 Sunday shattered the national record she set late last month.
Shimabukuro said Richardson's shy, soft-spoken demeanor may work to her advantage.
"It hides that fierce, competitive drive," Shimabukuro said. "That's one of her strengths because she's a game-day racer. She puts on a good smile and is very friendly with her competitors, but she always wants to win."
Derek Parra, who won gold in the 1,500 at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and now helps oversee the Utah Olympic Oval, said the time is right for Richardson to shine.
He said she has found her comfort zone on the ice, has a solid training partner in Brittany Bowe, and is getting more one-on-one instruction from Shimabukuro.
"She's just getting a better feel for the ice," Parra said. "If you look at my career, it was about the same time. ... She forgot her inline habits. She's better on the ice, more efficient, more balanced."
Parra said Richardson also has learned to reach top speed with a lower percentage of effort.
He said Nesbitt always seemed to catch Richardson on the last lap.
"After 600 meters, she'd be tired. That's starting to change," Parra said. "The future looks really bright for her."