A group of inline speed skaters line up behind the checkered strip of hardwood which signals the starting point of the oval track at Roller City in southwest Wichita. After a short, quiet wait, a loud beep rings through the disco balls and neon lights which hang from the ceiling.
The skaters take off around the first turn, which is marked by cones. One skater, though, stays behind. Tanner Worley sits, waiting to pounce, in a red and blue uniform with “USA” across the front and two custom-fit boots on his feet.
“He’s so quick that competition can’t keep up,” says Joe Cotter, who has been the 17-year-old national champion’s coach since he started speed skating in 2008.
After the first group gets to the first turn, Worley explodes off the start line. Cotter says it’s the fastest start in the country. The Derby High senior stays behind the pack for a few laps, waiting for his chance to make the jump, but he loves the chase.
“It’s not even about racing; I just like to chase people,” Worley said. “I like to go out and try to catch guys, and do extra things to make sure I’m going where I need to go.”
Worley even has a tattoo that reads “Chase Your Dreams” across his chest, with a skate sitting above it. He got it after he was bumped out of medal contention on the last corner in a race at the 2013 world junior championships in Belgium.
In this race, though, Worley comes back and wins the five laps with ease. This summer has been a sign of things to come for Worley. He’s broken six national speed skating records and clocked times with which he could compete at the senior level. His constant and methodical schedule — three workouts a day, five or six days a week — has been a big part of that.
“I never have to say, ‘Come on, let’s get it going,’” Cotter said.
Worley started skating seriously at 10. When Skate East closed, he went to Roller City, where Cotter got him to start coming to beginner-level skate sessions. From there, Worley was one of the first at the rink every Saturday to stake his claim on one of the few pairs of speed skates at Roller City until he got his own.
“At first it was all jeans and a shirt, I was just going out there having fun at practice,” Worley said. “Then I got really serious, and now it’s just natural to me.”
A year later, Worley was already competing at the national level with Team United, the team Cotter coaches. He took third at nationals that year.
At 14, Worley was the youngest skater to qualify for the World Inline Skating Championships, and since then, he’s won eight gold medals on the world junior level. He dominates on the national level, too, taking 21 of the 27 races over the last three years. And he’s done all that with two years before he moves onto the senior level.
“I feel like my life has changed from skating,” Worley said. “Most sports don’t take you around the country, or take you around the world.… I thought it was just a local thing, then next thing I know I’m going to France for the first time.”
Cotter, who Worley says is the best coach in the United States, has been with him all the way. Cotter has been coaching speed skating since 1974, was the national coach of the year in 1979, and has coached three other world speed skating champions. Among those he’s coached, Cotter says Worley is the best he’s seen.
“The kid is a phenom.… He’ll go further than anyone we’ve had in the past,” Cotter said. “When my daughter was 6 or 7, she was the national champion, and she’d race me to a line on the floor in the grocery store.
“He’s the same way. He’s got that fire in him. He does not want to get second in anything.”
Now, knowing that he is the fastest in the United States at his level, his next mission is to win a gold medal at the world championships. Last year, Worley was knocked out and injured in his first race, and wasn’t able to bounce back. Now, he’s filled out his frame — you can see it especially in his legs — and is even more ready than he was then, or when he had a sixth-place finish at worlds in 2013.
“There’s been a lot of success for me, muscle efficiency, I’ve grown, and I’m more comfortable around the sport,” Worley said. “I put more time into than other people. When people are sleeping, not training, and doing nothing, I’m training. That’s my mentality.”