Palisadian Peter Smokler is the current short track speed skating champion in his age group. “Going to nationals with all the elite skaters was exciting,” he said.
The Gold Medal winner holds the record for 75+ and although he’s working with an injured shoulder, he’s hoping to make it back to nationals in Colorado Spring next year and “I’ve love to make my records better, make my times unbeatable.”
When he went to the races in Milwaukee in March, “I had fallen two weeks before and I was injured, and my times were not very good.”
Speed skating is a relatively new “occupation” for Smokler. He is director of photography by trade, known for Sports Night, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, This is Spinal Tap and The Larry Sanders Show.
Smoker was nominated for an Emmy in 1997 and 1998 for Outstanding Lighting Direction for a Comedy Series for The Larry Sanders Show.
He won an Emmy in 2000 for Sports Night. Four years later, he was once again nominated for Director of Photography for George Lopez.
How did this multi-talented and award-winning show business professional end up on the ice as a national champion?
Smokler comes from Detroit and a skating family. His father was from Canada, and a skater, and started his son as a five-year-old. Kids played hockey during recess. During the winter, the fire department sprayed water on a berm area to create a rink.
Smokler remembers that was when “kids wore helmets and pros didn’t,” and we couldn’t wait because “someday we wouldn’t have to wear a helmet.”
As a young teen, he was good enough on the ice to be recruited by the coach, making the indoor league. The other league, the outdoor league, was for the less gifted, “the scrub league,” Smoker said.
By the time he was 16, “I realized I wasn’t that serious about hockey and gave it up,” he said.
When Smokler chose a college, he selected Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, which had 750 students (it now has 25,000) because it didn’t have any extra mural teams. “I was a hippie, and I didn’t want to go to a school run by jocks.”
But then, he and some friends started playing soccer and ended up forming the school’s first intramural team. His love of the game carried over when his youngest son Charlie, played for Region 69 and Smokler served as an AYSO referee.
Although, he took a 28-year break from the ice, he thought about playing hockey again, as a way to get back in shape. But since the 55-year-old didn’t have any equipment, he decided to try speed skating.
Smokler found a rink in Lakewood that loaned race skates. When he arrived, he found that it “was all elite, Olympic level skaters. It was a really serious environment,” he said.
“Fortunately, it had kids and a few masters,” he said and remembered, “I stepped on the ice, and it felt really great.”
While skating there, he learned about the skating club in Santa Clarita, which had less Olympic hopefuls and more masters. Smokler started some serious skating training, putting in about four sessions a week on the ice and hitting the Palisades Malibu YMCA for strength training.
“My bucket list was to go to Nationals,” he said. He was 59 when he was blading on the Venice bike path and hit sand, which sent him flying and resulted in a Class III shoulder separation. “It hurt like hell and made me miss Nationals that year,” he said.
Then he had two partial knee replacements, but nothing could keep him off the ice. “I picked it up again at 73,” he said.
Now, 76, Smokler was training at Lakewood for the Nationals, practicing relays, when he caught the tip of his blade, which sent him flying.
Although injured, he still went in March to Milwaukee.
For people who are not familiar with the sport, Smokler explained that short track, which is either 500 (four and half laps), 1,000 (nine laps) or 1,500 meters (13 ½ laps).
At the start of the race, there is a group of people. “You skate with a pack,” he said, noting there are everywhere from two to eight people.
In the semis, there are the A finals “faster guys,” Smoker said, and B finals “With people like me.”
He is now in the 75+ age category and spoke about Nationals in Lake Placid in 2022. “One guy from Buffalo was pretty competitive,” Smoker said. “He was in his early 60s – a young guy. I was coming around the last time trying to pass him, the crowd was with me.
“I was almost going to beat him, when I lost balance,” he said. The crowd had been rooting for Smokler, and when the slip happened, “The whole crowd goes ‘ahh.”
At Lake Placid, a man who was 79 and a good skater told him, “Let’s trade the lead every lap.” So, they did, and the audience got into the competition. Smoker was in the lead going into the final lap, and all of a sudden, the guy speeds up, surprising Smoker, who was thinking, “I thought we were supposed to change every lap?”
So, Smoker started sprinting, too, and they ended up in a photo finish, much to the delight of the crowd.
“I won by a blade length,” said Smokler, who is married to a make-up artist Elizabeth and has two adult sons, Charlie and Gregg.
With actors and writers on strike, “by default I’m retiring,” he said. But once the doctor gives him the go ahead, you’ll find him at the Pickwick ring in Burbank or the Cube in Santa Clarita, working on his latest quest – lowering his time so that no one in his age group will be able to beat him – and setting a new record.