NC native trades strings for skates

Winston-Salem native Kimani Griffin went from Carnegie Hall musician to Olympic athlete

Winston-Salem native Kimani Griffin competes at the U.S. Speedskating Olympic Trials in Milwaukee on Jan. 5 (John Kleba / US Speedskating)

Kimani Griffin is no stranger to the biggest of stages or the brightest of spotlights.

He’s already been there.

As a 17-year-old prodigy, the Winston-Salem native performed as part of a nationally broadcast recital at Carnegie Hall in New York. A decade later, having traded his classical guitar in for a pair of skates, he’s hoping that the experience will help prepare him for the next defining moment in his life.

Griffin will represent the United States in the 500-meter speedskating event at the Pyeongchang Olympics later this month.

While there aren’t many similarities between playing music and racing against the clock on a slick sheet of ice, there’s something to be said for knowing what to expect when the entire world is watching you perform at the highest levels of your craft.

In many ways, playing Carnegie Hall is to a musician what competing in the Olympics is to an athlete.

“You could say that,” said Griffin, who now lives and trains in Salt Lake City. “Both take years of dedication, focus and commitment.

“I’m definitely going to be under a microscope in Pyeongchang, and you could definitely hear a pin drop at Carnegie Hall. Luckily, I do well under pressure and I like the attention.”


They’re both traits he said he picked up from his mother, Pam Griffin, a now-retired professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

His talent for music and athletics is also hereditary.

His grandmother was a classical pianist and teacher. His father, who left the picture when Kimani was 7, was a talented baseball player good enough to get a look from professional scouts. His parents met while playing in a band together.

Given his choice of instruments to play, Griffin picked the guitar and almost immediately began playing it well.

“He just has a beautiful touch,” his mother said.

While Griffin’s proficiency in music may have been preordained, his skill on skates came about purely by chance, thanks to a friend’s birthday party at a Winston-Salem roller rink when he was 8.

Things didn’t go well that first time he put wheels on his feet. But each time he fell, he got back up more determined than ever to stay upright the next time. He had his mother bring him back to the rink to practice and eventually got good enough that he caught the eye of an employee.

“One of the floor guards came over and said, ‘There’s something about that kid. He’s got a lot of natural ability,’” Pam Griffin recalled. “He told us about a pair of used (in-line) speed skates in the office that were for sale and there it started.

“I’ve been in the arts and usually we sort of ‘poo poo’ sports. We’re so ethereal about all of that. It is an unusual mix. But he’s good at both.”

Between school, music and speedskating, the Griffins life became a whirlwind of guitar lessons and recitals, rollerblade practices and competitions, with homework and some semblance of a social life squeezed in between.

It wasn’t until that concert in New York, which was part of the PBS television series “From the Top at Carnegie Hall,” that he was forced to choose one of his loves over the other. That’s when he became one of two students nationally that year to be awarded the prestigious Woodruff Scholarship to the Columbus State School of Music.

It didn’t take long, however, for the skating bug to bite him again.

Kimani Griffin plays guitar during a recital at Carnegie Hall in 2008 (PBS photo)

After two years of college in Georgia, he decided to move to Salt Lake City and get back on the track — this time one covered in ice — with an eye toward qualifying for the Olympics.

“I visited Salt Lake in the summer of 2008 just before I started (college) and that was the first time I ever tried long track,” Griffin said. “They had an in-line-to-ice transitional program out there, funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and I did that for about two years.”

The program has helped produce several Olympians, including fellow North Carolinian Heather Richardson Bergsma of High Point.

Although there are many similarities between in-line and ice skating, Griffin said the differences made the transition more difficult than it might seem.

“They’re both skating in a sense, but as far as the technical aspect, the way you create speed and go fast is quite different on ice,” Griffin said. “On wheels if you want to go fast, you just kind of push harder and go faster. Basically, you try harder. On ice, there’s just one way to accelerate and that’s by creating a downward force into the ice and staying with that pressure for as long as you can through the entire push into the next step.”

Like that skating motion, Griffin’s career has gradually gained momentum and picked up speed.

He made the U.S. World Cup team in 2014, won his first gold medal at the American Cup final in 2016, and last December qualified for his first trip to the Olympics by finishing third in the 500 at the U.S. Trials in Milwaukee.

It’s an accomplishment that still hasn’t completely sunk in, even as he prepares to make the trip to South Korea. Though he plans to continue competing for the foreseeable future once the Olympics are over, Griffin is hoping that his experience on this big stage turns out to be as beneficial to his future as the one at Carnegie Hall was a decade ago.

“Making the Olympic team is opening some doors for me,” he said. “I would like to use this platform as a springboard to not just be a skater, but have my music talent recognized as well.”