Eddy Alvarez was a subtropical showman on wheels long before he became a sub-zero star on ice skates.
Nicknamed “The Jet” at age 5, Alvarez was a fearless, acrobatic inline skater who wowed sunburned crowds of tourists on Ocean Drive. He was the adorable phenom of the South Beach skating scene in Lummus Park, performing tricks, jumping over walls, slaloming through a line of water bottles.
“Even at a young age, he had charisma,” said Alvarez’s father, Walter. “He never lost it.”
The world gets to watch Alvarez during the Sochi Olympics, where he will perform his daring moves on a tight, slippery oval in the unpredictable sport of short track speedskating, which can be described as a combination of NASCAR and roller derby on ice.
Miami’s Alvarez follows Miami’s Jennifer Rodriguez as the second Cuban American to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team. They used to train at Kendall Ice Arena, athletes who made the crossover from wheels to blades.
But unlike J-Rod, a two-time bronze medalist and four-time Olympian in long track speedskating, Alvarez chose the topsy-turvy world of short track, where skaters bump and crash as they race at 30 mph through sharp turns at extreme angles, using pivot gloves to stay upright.
Alvarez, emulating Apolo Anton Ohno, is known for his come-from-behind passing maneuvers.
“He’s radical,” said Alvarez’s coach, Wilma Boomstra. “He can make some crazy passes from the back, and if they’re clean, they’re amazing.”
Alvarez, 23, qualified for all three individual events and the relay with one bronze and two silver medals at the U.S. trials at the team’s training home in Kearns, Utah. The team arrives in Germany on Saturday for final preparations before the Feb. 7-23 Games in southern Russia.
“I’m ready to peak at the Olympics,” said Alvarez, who set personal bests at 500 and 1,000 meters at trials. “This was a big step for me, but the goal is to be on the podium in Sochi.”
Alvarez, who grew up in the Roads neighborhood and graduated from Columbus High, had a cheering section in Utah of more than 50 relatives and friends — some from his years as an inline skater, others from his years as a baseball player.
After he qualified, he went to the locker room and allowed himself a cathartic cry inside a bathroom stall.
“I took a moment alone, and recapped everything I’ve been through, and let it all release,” he said. “It was such a relief to know it’s been worth the struggle.”
Alvarez nearly gave up on his Olympic dream in 2012. Years of pain from his damaged knee tendons had become unbearable. He had tried to cope by receiving injections of platelet-rich plasma.
“The doctor would jam the needle into the bottom of my kneecap and scrape around inside to promote blood flow, and it was so agonizing that I would pass out on the table,” Alvarez said. “I was tired of living in constant pain.”
Alvarez came home and decided on a “last resort” — five hours of bilateral knee surgery by Dr. Keith Hechtman, who repaired 12 tears to the patellar tendons.
He was immobilized for six weeks at home.
“He lived on that couch, used a bedpan, watched TV and got depressed,” said Alvarez’s mother, Mabel, pointing to the place in the family room where she nursed him back to health. “When he finally got up, that, to me, was a gold medal in itself.”
Alvarez began walking with crutches and started rehab at an I-AM Crossfit gym owned by his brother, Nick, an ex minor league baseball player who had undergone Tommy John surgery — a common elbow operation for pitchers with damaged arms — by Hechtman.
“He lost all his strength and stamina, and his thighs went from looking like those of a comic-book character to those of an average Joe,” Nick said. “But after the operation, a switch went on in his head. He was always very talented. The setback made him more determined. That’s when he vowed he would make it to the Olympics or die trying.”
Alvarez got treatment at Sport Fit gym, where Olympic sprinter Lauryn Williams was rehabbing a hamstring injury. The two got to know each other, and now they’ll both be representing Miami as winter athletes — Williams as a bobsled brakeman.
After three months, Alvarez returned to Utah, where he had to re-learn how to walk down stairs, lower himself into a chair and hold a basic tuck position — which speedskaters must do for minutes in a race as lactic acid pours into their muscles.
“I felt like I kind of fell off the earth for a while,” Alvarez said.
The surgery, and the grueling timetable it forced him to follow to be ready for his 2014 goal, also made Alvarez choose between his two loves, skating and baseball. He had been a skater since he got a pair of plastic roller skates for Christmas at age 4. He had been a baseball player nearly as long. His parents recalled how he used to skate around furniture on the tile floors of the house, and how he also used to play catch in the family room with a plastic ball, or in the yard with his parents, Nick and sister Nicole, now a disc jockey for KROQ in Los Angeles.
Alvarez, who began his inline career at the Galaxy rink in Margate, won his first national title in the Tiny Tots division. The next year, he met J.R. Celski at nationals in Pensacola, and the two have been best friends since. Celski, from Federal Way, Wash., is the No. 1 skater on the U.S. team. As inline kids, Alvarez and Celski traded top spots on the podium. Their families still vacation together at the Alvarez’s getaway home in Tavernier, where Alvarez enjoys spearfishing.
Walter encouraged Eddy to try speedskating at age 7 with Bob Manning, who coached Rodriguez.
“I said, ‘Eddy, why don’t you race ice, it’s an Olympic sport,’ and we told J.R. the same thing,” said Walter, an engineer who owns Prestress Concrete — and formerly a boxing promoter. “We have always been huge fans of the Olympics and the ultimate thrill of representing your country.”
At age 9, Alvarez won inline nationals in Lincoln, Neb., long track nationals in Butte, Mont., and short track nationals in Cleveland.
“He could have played hockey, too,” Walter said. “He was a natural on the ice.”
Then, while Celski began to focus exclusively on speedskating, Alvarez continued to split his time between skating and baseball, idolizing both Ohno and Ken Griffey, Jr. His mother loaded bags of equipment into the car and drove him from rink to field, from meets to games, with Alvarez doing homework in the back seat.
“I think he saw baseball as more fun, and skating in the Olympics was more of a passion,” Walter said.
He was influenced by Nick, who advanced to the cusp of the majors as a triple A outfielder for the Dodgers organization.
Alvarez excelled as a shortstop and switch hitter at Columbus and earned a scholarship to St. Thomas, but decided to try to make the 2010 Olympic team and moved to Long Beach, Calif., with Celski to train with Boomstra, a former Dutch skater.
Alvarez didn’t make the team but the Olympic trials proved to be another turning point for him. He watched as Celski gashed open his left thigh in a crash, and left a puddle of blood on the ice. He accompanied his friend to the ambulance and later, in Celski’s hospital room, he pledged to Boomstra that he would be back for 2014.
“It was an awful weekend, but I knew I couldn’t give up on skating,” Alvarez said. “I didn’t want to feel any regrets.”
Yet he couldn’t resist playing baseball again, this time with the Salt Lake City Community College Bruins. He made the all-conference team and was interviewed by scouts from the Royals and Brewers.
“I was confident the two sports could be compatible, because skating made my legs stronger for baseball and base-running made my starts better in skating,” Alvarez said.
His knees, however, kept getting worse. After surgery he made the choice to concentrate on skating. Last spring, he and Celski joined Boomstra in California again for intensive training, which included repeat runs up a steep sand dune near her Manhattan Beach home, cross country runs, bike rides and hours on the ice fixing the skaters’ technique on their entry into turns.
“They came in with some bad habits and it took a couple weeks to fix them,” she said.
Boomstra believes Alvarez is in prime shape for the Games.
“When he wants something he goes head first,” she said. “In the past he would make mistakes, stupid passes and get disqualified. He’s grown to be a more patient skater, controlling the race rather than waiting in the back.”
Alvarez’s parents, both natives of Cuba, will be in Sochi. On a recent evening, they looked through their son’s memorabilia — boxes of trophies and medals; his first pair of skates; a tiny baseball glove; a video of him lisping through missing teeth, “I want to be an Olympic skater,” and an old photo of Eddy the Jet, wearing an outsized helmet, eyes wide, leaping over a prone skater on a South Beach sidewalk.
“Just watch in Sochi,” Walter said. “He’s going to steal the show.”