PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Members of the U.S. Olympic speedskating team provided a little self-deprecating humor this week when asked how many medals they expect to win collectively here in these Games.
“More than zero,” Mitchell Whitmore cracked.
Brittany Bowe played it more serious and revealed a number that clearly has been discussed behind closed doors.
“At least five,” she said. “We have high-performance meetings and I don’t know the algorithm that they use but that number came into my head.”
Whitmore jumped back in to lighten the mood again.
“Joey [Mantia] can win four by himself,” he said.
“We’re going to get 25,” Mantia concluded.
Anything higher than zero will surpass their feeble effort in Sochi four years ago. Hopefully, we don’t hear a lot of excuse-making this time.
One of the most stunning developments for Team USA in Sochi was the belly-flop by long-track skaters. They came home empty-handed after arriving with typically high expectations.
The U.S. has won 67 medals (29 gold) in speedskating in its history — the most of any Olympic sport — and that count remained unchanged after a goose egg in Russia.
Excuses flowed after every loss. Their uniforms slowed them down. They didn’t train in the right place. Team chemistry was poor.
What started as explanations sounded more like excuses by the end. The finger-pointing was a bad look. Meanwhile, the Dutch lapped the field with 23 medals.
Frustration bubbled over as St. Paul native Maria Lamb publicly blasted the U.S. Speedskating organization after she finished last in the women’s 5,000 meters.
“I know that we’re all capable of so much more than the Games have shown,” she said. “It’s tough to watch us be defeated not so much by the fact that [we’re] not capable of more but by some of the leadership in the organization.”
The organization dissected every aspect of the program after Sochi in search of answers. The two biggest complaints from skaters involved their attire and training methods.
They raised concerns almost immediately about new high-tech skin suits called “Mach 39” that were designed by Under Armour in conjunction with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Some even speculated that a design flaw in the suit actually caused skaters to go slower.
Whitmore, who called their Sochi performance a “disaster,” volunteered to explain their issues with the suit.
“First, it was super tight,” he said. “Second, we only put it on a couple of weeks before the races started, and we were skating outdoors. Some of us hadn’t skated outdoors for seven years and some had never skated outdoors. It was really heavy. It didn’t stretch at all and the vent on the back wasn’t great.”
Wonderful planning there. Who was in charge, Moe, Larry or Curly?
Some skaters also questioned the decision to train in high altitude rather than on slower ice conditions similar to those in Sochi.
All of those things made the mood tense from the Opening Ceremony.
“It was my first Games, and team morale was really weird,” Mantia said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but between long-track and short-track it was just a weird vibe in the village amongst our team.”
Their concerns with the suits clearly took a sledgehammer to their psyche and became a distraction. The Olympics require so much focus, precision and mental clarity that worrying about uncontrollable forces is a surefire losing proposition.
“Our staff has done a really good of eliminating any distractions that we had last time,” Whitmore said.
Under Armour designed new suits that have received overwhelming thumbs-ups from skaters. Speedskating officials also examined training methods and preparation. They held training camp in Milwaukee rather than at high altitude again. They probably made tweaks to every single aspect of the program to avoid another embarrassment.
“Everything has been taken care of, we have everything we need,” Mantia said. “It’s just up to us now. There’s no more blaming it on anything else.”
No more excuses. Their focus should be redemption.
And bringing home more than zero medals.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org