Ocala Olympic hopeful Paige Schwartzburg credits grandma for boost
It was July 21, 2004, and a 14-year-old Paige Schwartzburg woke up in a hospital 1,500 miles away from home with no memory of how she got there.
The night before, while celebrating her 14th birthday, she drank so much she ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
Schwartzburg, an Ocala native, was in Nebraska competing at inline skating nationals. She set a record in her age group, and her talent was earning her recognition.
But traveling for the first time without her parents combined with the less than sound actions of a chaperone conspired against her.
To celebrate her birthday, one of the parents on the trip bought alcohol for her and her teammates. For Schwartzburg, it was the start of a long struggle between her inner demons and her athletic talent.
Despite having her stomach pumped, missing her flight back home and being stuck in a hospital all alone in the Midwest, all she could think of was the waiting wrath of her parents in Ocala.
The punishment? No more skating. Ever.
“My parents are like, ‘That’s it,’” the now-30-year-old Schwartzburg recalled. “’You’re not seeing skaters ever again. You’re finished, you know, skating’s over for you.’ And that was probably the most devastating thing that ever happened to me because I loved skating more than anything.”
Schwartzburg tried playing other sports, but nothing approached skating. All she wanted to do was skate. But that longing too eventually passed. She took up other, less healthy, pursuits and her life started a downward spiral.
She started drinking and smoking. At 18, Schwartzburg spent a night in jail for retail petit theft and got six months of probation. Two months later, she violated her probation on a charge of possession of alcohol while under 21.
“I was actually over at one of my friends’ houses, you know, smoking weed, and my mom’s like, ‘Where are you? You know, the police showed up, you have to go turn yourself in,’” Schwartzburg said. “And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh my god, no way, like this is really happening.’”
Schwartzburg was sentenced to 30 days in jail and work release.
“I was just a young kid partying,” she said. “But every time that I got handcuffs put on me to go to a court date, it was just, you know, this is never happening again.”
After her jail sentence, Schwartzburg looked up her old skating connections. Joe Mantia, the father of Olympic speed skater Joey Mantia, let her work at his gym. Schwartzburg was close with Joey and decorated inline skater Brittany Bowe growing up, but as their careers took off, Schwartzburg’s life was still stuck.
The trio is part of a strong speedskating pipeline that grew out of the Ocala inline skating scene and has produced several standout ice speed skaters.
Not long after Schwartzburg started working at the gym, Bowe came back in town and told Schwartzburg about her plans to move to Salt Lake City, the headquarters of U.S. Speedskating. For Schwartzburg, reaching those heights seemed like only a dream.
“And I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s awesome,’” Schwartzburg said. “But you know, that’s never gonna happen. I haven’t skated in eight years. And you know, I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.”
A new beginning
Enter Diane Dodge, Schwartzburg’s grandmother.
Dodge is no stranger to sports. Her father, Ray Dodge, competed at the 1924 Olympics in Paris in track and field, and Diane later coached football kickers in Ocala. Ray also started a successful trophy business called Dodge Inc., which later manufactured the trophies for the Oscars and the Emmy Awards. Among her extensive collection of memorabilia are display versions of an Emmy and the Sugar Bowl Trophy.
An entire room of her house is dedicated to displaying her collection. A large part of which includes memorabilia from Schwartzburg’s career, including a wealth of photos. On the back of the door, she has a collection of passes and athletic credentials from Schwartzburg’s speedskating travels around the world.
But without Diane, that memorabilia might not exist.
For a while, the two weren’t close. But as Schwartzburg started to turn her life around, the two bonded. Schwartzburg’s initial plan was to start inline skating again and earn enough money to move to Utah, where she could transition to skating on ice.
Diane had other plans.
“I said, ‘Pack your bags. You have two weeks to get ready, and we’re going to go right out there and take this bull by the horns,’” Diane said.
Two weeks later, the pair set off driving across the country – Diane is afraid of flying – with no plan and no place to stay.
The transition from roller skating to ice skating was harder than Schwartzburg expected. She had to wear a helmet for two months so as not to crack her skull on the ice.
“(I) wanted to move back to Florida immediately because I couldn’t even stand on my feet,” she said.
But Schwartzburg improved and soon got a feel for the ice. That’s when the real work began.
The long journey back
Even though she was away from Ocala, old habits crept back from time to time. She was still smoking marijuana and cigarettes here and there.
It wasn’t until 2013 that she started taking skating seriously and committed to taking care of her body. She didn’t want to let down her grandma, who was helping her financially.
“I would say definitely around 23 is when I was like, ‘Oh, man, like, I’m actually out here training for possibly going to the Olympics,’” Schwartzburg said. “I mean, my biggest goal for some time was, you know, making the national team. And when I did that, that’s when I was just like, ‘Oh, man, like, it’s serious. Now, we got to make sure we’re doing the right things.’”
While Schwartzburg hasn’t qualified for an Olympics, she’s been on the national team for five years and has made appearances at the World Cup and world championships. In 2020, she took home a gold medal at the Four Continents Speed Skating Championships in the team pursuit event. A photo of her and her teammates sits on a table in Diane’s room.
But this last season has been one of her toughest on the ice. A back and knee injury wiped out October. A big competition in November was canceled. Then she tested positive for COVID-19 in December.
Schwartzburg was in quarantine for the entire month. The struggles convinced her to make a change.
She left the National Team’s training program and joined former four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, who was also the first African-American to win a medal in an individual event at the Winter Olympics.
“That was probably the biggest decision for me,” Schwartzburg said. “It’s just been a very tough year mentally trying to find where I’m happy, what I want to do, you know. I couldn’t even imagine going another year, you know, in the program that I was in. So, that’s a decision that had to be made.”
An artist’s touch
All of that time spent in isolation allowed her to pursue another passion: Art.
Schwartzburg’s Instagram page is full of pictures of her standing next to canvases of abstract art.
In Utah, she met Hamid Adib, who owns Adib’s Rug Gallery. Adib was the one who pushed her toward creating art as a way to express herself. He works with a lot of artists, and he felt that it would come very naturally to her.
“He said I had talent and needed to experiment with paint on canvases,” Schwartzburg said in a text. “So, when I got COVID and was in quarantine for a month. I went crazy with it and realized I was actually pretty good.”
“The fact that she’s creating something that she gets very positive input from people around her, that has made her so much more confident,” Adib said. “And that, fortunately, has been affecting very positively based on the things that I hear on her efforts with her skating.”
Adib also sees her art as therapy. Through the vibrant neon blues, pinks and oranges and the unique shapes and patterns, the pains of the past and the pressures of working toward becoming an Olympic speed skater fade away.
“I can see certain things about her completely going into her paintings,” Adib said. “And so, you can see some of those struggles. You can see some of her uneven past within those paintings.
“And she has gone through some challenges, even with her sport and stuff,” he continued. “But she has found ways that she’s feeling a lot better about doing some changes to where she is now. And honestly, I feel like she is a winner already.”
With Davis at the helm, Schwartzburg is already starting to feel better about the future. At this year’s national championships, she competed for the first time since contracting COVID-19. Despite some lingering effects from the virus, Schwartzburg just wanted to race again.
“I just decided to race literally everything,” Schwartzburg said. “It was the only weekend that I actually raced more than one race, so it was a little overwhelming but nice just to feel something race-wise.”
Her best results were a third-place finish in the 1500-meter and a win in the team pursuit event. It wasn’t where she wanted to be as she sights on the 2022 Olympics, but it was a good start.
And she knows how to start over after a fall.
“I think the biggest thing for me is, you know, wherever you are in life, you can always, you know, get out of the hole that you’re in,” she said. “You can always, you know, make yourself better, even if you think you can’t. Like if you hit rock bottom, you can always get out of it, you just have to put in a little bit of work.”