Milwaukee Talks: Olympic hopeful Liam Ortega
After graduating from Marquette University with a degree in psychology in 2007, Liam Ortega decided to pursue his Olympic dream by qualifying for the United States' long track speed skating team as they prepared for the 2010 Winter Games.
But during a practice in 2008, a fellow skater's blades broke on the inside track, sending him careening to the outer ring where Ortega was gliding along. He crashed into the back of Ortega's legs, flipping him backwards and causing his head to hit the ice.
The fall resulted in a cracked skull and brain trauma, causing Ortega to miss out on giving those U.S. Olympic Trials his best shot. After that, he had to decide if he would continue to train and prepare for another go at making the U.S. national team.
OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Ortega, a native of Fairbanks, Alaska, at Sven's Café on Water Street during a break from his training at the Pettit National Center to talk about the people who helped push him back into that pursuit of that Olympic dream, his fundraising efforts to keep it alive, his favorite places to eat in Milwaukee – and how he enjoys them even though his accident left him without his sense of smell.
OnMilwaukee.com: Thanks for taking a break from your training regimen to chat. Despite being from Alaska, you come back to Milwaukee often don't you?
Liam Ortega: The only downside of Milwaukee is there are no mountains! It's a fantastic city. It's so dynamic and growing. The people are great. It's a small town, big city. You can go to the local farmer's market in whatever part of the Milwaukee area and run into somebody you know. Or you might make a new friend because people are so friendly.
I like the community and I like the culture. It's very at ease. It's very hard working city. It's a very healthy city. How it's changed from when I was 18 years old to now – a decade is a big change in Milwaukee and it's fun to see that change. I like Milwaukee a lot more than Salt Lake City. You can be in the countryside in five minutes. Like go to the lakefront, head up Lake Drive, and you're headed up to Port Washington and Grafton. No big deal.
I live out in Menomonee Falls. It's 20 minutes and it's completely tranquil. There are cows across the street. I like that feel a lot. You can have the city life, you can have the fun aspects, but you can also have the complete release and relaxation.
OMC: We're here at Sven's, enjoying a coffee. I noticed that you added a lot of honey to it. How has losing your sense of smell affected your ability to enjoy all the great food here?
LO: When I was recovering I got phantom smells, meaning I might be smelling something very specifically without any stimulus present. So for a few hours everything might smell like salmon. But being in Milwaukee, Brew City, when that yeast smell covers the city I don't smell that anymore. Bummer.
I do like beer, but … or that leather factory, where it smells like something died. I don't smell that anymore. Or down by the lakefront when all the dead fish in Lake Michigan release the toxins, I don't smell those at all! The yeast smell is uniquely Milwaukee. That's a fun smell. The adjustment was mostly getting more texture in my food.
My sense of smell is not back. I don't smell coffee even though I should. It's one of the strongest smells out there. It's diverse, but it's not accurate like it should be. I still enjoy food greatly. I enjoy cooking a lot. But I follow the ingredients to a "T." My taste is very basic – sweet, salty, bitter, sour. I can taste all those very easily so I don't screw up cooking that badly.
I still greatly enjoy food. I'm a fan of eating. Public Market is a good go-to. One of my favorite childhood foods was the gyro and I still love those. The Grecian Inn out on like Lily and Capitol is surprisingly really good. I was shocked how good the Greek food was. Downtown I like Mykonos a lot. I like the Hispanic district. They have fun spots. I like Rustico Pizza. Sobleman's burgers are amazing. Cream Puffs are alright. I had one at the fair. It was amazing. That's a once a year thing for me.
OMC: What smells do you miss?
LO: I can never smell how fresh baked cookies smell anymore. Or if someone walks into a kitchen and says "It smells so good, what are you making?" and I'll say "It's good it smells good." I miss those moments when you get an aroma. So many memories are tied to your sense of your smell. It's not something I dwell on, but there's an awareness. At first I thought it was a mistake. When it first happened I was eating something and I was frustrated – why can't I smell this?
They were like, "oh, that must be from the head injury." I was like, "is it going to come back?" They said, "maybe." They gave me steroids and that didn't help. Acupuncture sort of helped. Then I was like maybe I can go on "Fear Factor" and win every eating competition! I was like I could win a couple eating contests.
At first it's a shock, to lose an actual sense. You don't have that many of them. You don't want to lose them. But, in term of the recovery I made, I wouldn't trade it for anything else.
OMC: What is the next stop on the schedule for you?
LO: Our fall world cup trials are at the end of October here in four weeks, so those trials – you want to do well at them – like you don't want to be so far off that there is no hope but you don't want to be at your very best. And if they don't go perfect, you don't need to have that worry just because say you do awesome in the fall, do awesome in the world cups, win them – I don't expect to win them – then you go to the Olympic Trials and don't make the team.
You earn the country spot's in the world cup but you don't earn your spot until the end of December. Just doing race specific intervals. I do my first time trials next weekend. It's good timing because everyone's in town right now. The national team came in (Tuesday) so it'll be fun to do time trials with everyone there and see how I'm feeling first and foremost and see where everyone else is at.
OMC: Do you have expectations for the fall and for the 2014 Winter Games?
LO: My goal for this year is to be at my best and hopefully my best is there when the time comes. I had a traumatic brain injury in 2008 and it was right before the Olympic Trials and when they came, I had tried so hard to recover, but in reality it took two years to recover, before I felt strong again. My greatest satisfaction would to be at my best. And if my best makes it happen, I'd be thrilled. That's what I'm going after. I believe my best will make that happen.
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