SOCHI, RUSSIA – Heather Richardson tied for the best finish by an American speedskater — male or female — in these Olympics on Sunday. Unfortunately, she placed seventh in the 1,500 meters, more than four seconds slower than the winner.
Her teammate Brittany Bowe owns the second-fastest time in that event in the World Cup this season. She finished 14th on the big stage.
So goes the no-show performance by U.S. speedskaters in a sport that historically has been a source of pride for Americans.
Not only have U.S. skaters not won a medal in eight events, but they’re not even coming close.
By contrast, the Dutch have claimed 16 medals, including a sweep of the women’s 1,500 on Sunday. Is there a mercy rule in this sport?
At least the Americans no longer can blame their poor performances on the cutting-edge body suits that apparently had the reverse effect and caused them to skate slower. They ditched those and pulled their old suits out of storage over the weekend.
And they still couldn’t crack the medal stand.
“Obviously it’s unfortunate,” Bowe said. “No one wants to be in the position that we’re in.”
The U.S. has won 67 medals in speedskating — the most of any Winter Olympic sport — and this team was confident that it would add considerably to that haul. Now, after Sunday’s goose egg, the Americans face the real prospect of leaving Sochi stuck on the same medal count.
How in the name of Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair did this happen?
The drama began with concerns about the high-tech skin suits dubbed “Mach 39” that were designed by Under Armour in conjunction with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The suits were supposed to make the skaters faster. Instead, they began wondering if the suits were at the root of their problems.
Does the Mach 39 have an actual design flaw? Perhaps, but the larger issue rests with the governing body. U.S. Speedskating made an egregious tactical blunder by not giving the skaters a chance to wear those suits in competition before the Olympics in order to get acclimated to them.
Why skip that critical step? Skater Brian Hansen revealed the reason after he finished seventh in the men’s 1,500.
“The main reason was to keep the secret in case other teams found out about it and had enough time to switch their technology,” Hansen said.
It’s a body suit, not a nuclear code. Shani Davis, who has had a nightmare Olympics, admitted he would have appreciated the chance to test drive those suits.
“In any scenario you want to try something out before you try it on one of the biggest stages of your life,” he said. “I would much rather try it out way before the Olympics.”
U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro was asked if he wishes they had tested the suits.
“Hindsight is always 20-20,” he said, before adding, “I think you guys [media] are making more of the skin suits than we are.”
Really? Then why did the skaters stop wearing them?
U.S. Speedskating looks like an operation in crisis, dragged down by dysfunction and finger-pointing. Concerns about the body suits and whether the team erred by training in altitude vs. sea level have created a significant distraction at the worst possible time.
Hansen’s coach met with reporters Saturday and blasted the organization’s decision to train in high altitude rather than seek slower ice conditions similar to Sochi.
Responded Shimabukuro: “Altitude is not an issue.”
Athletes often talk about how their mental approach is as important as their physical ability. The separation in talent, especially at this level, is minuscule. The difference often comes down to who can handle the pressure and focus strictly on the task.
The U.S. speedskaters have been caught in this vortex of uncertainty practically since they arrived in Sochi. That must affect them on some level.
A staff member for U.S. Speedskating cut short Bowe’s postrace interview after she faced a few questions about the drama. Richardson looked visibly uncomfortable dealing with that same line of questioning.
“I don’t want to read about it or talk about it anymore,” she said. “I think we’re all just trying to stay positive and forget each day and start fresh each day.”
A mess like this usually results in changes, but it’s too late for these Olympics. The Dutch came here focused and determined to conquer this event. Team USA just looks lost.
“It’s obviously a disappointment,” Shimabukuro said. “Right now we’re not going to do a full analysis. It’s too emotional, it’s too in the moment. To do a specific analysis, you’ve got to do it with a clear head and an open heart. Now is not the time.”