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.”