U.S. speedskaters pushed to brink on rink and off

  • By Bill Plaschke Los Angeles Times
  • Sunday, February 16, 2014 10:14pm
  • SportsSports

SOCHI, Russia — The saddest spot for a U.S. Olympian here is six feet under the ice, in a basement buffeted by heat and hindsight.

The saddest spot is the cramped cavern into which the celebrated U.S speedskaters have trudged to meet the media after each of their eight events.

The team is 0 for 8. It has won zero medals. It has not finished better than seventh place. It is one of the biggest debacles for an established American powerhouse in more than a generation.

The press pit is an awkward proposition under the best of circumstances for small-sport athletes, but the mounting controversy over the bizarre struggles has further widened the speedskaters’ eyes and backed them up, and finally, Sunday night, something snapped.

Standing in front of the straining, recorder-wagging American media scrum on the other side of a metal fence, Brittany Bowe lasted less than four minutes.

The world’s second-ranked skater in the 1,500 was trying to explain why she had just finished 14th. She was deftly dancing around the team’s uniform scandal and politely shrugging off criticism of the team’s pre-Olympic training camp when finally, apparently, somebody felt it was too hot and too real.

Quicker than Bowe had just covered nearly four laps on her skates, an official draped an arm around Bowe’s shoulder and pulled her away, saying, “It’s been a really difficult competition for her.”

The reporters howled in protest. The official returned with an explanation.

“This has been really, really tough for them,” said Jenny Walter, press attache for USA Speedskating. “Their dreams are getting shattered right now.”

A Sochi official appeared and scolded the dozen or so American media members for being too harsh with the press officer. Then Ryan Shimabukuro, U.S. head coach, showed up and politely insinuated that the U.S. press might be acting like bullies.

“We’ve done very well considering the resources and popularity of speedskating in the U.S.,” Shimabukuro said. “We do very well considering we’re a very, very tiny sport in the U.S.”

He’s right, speedskating is a tiny, tiny sport, and public criticism of it can indeed seem unseemly. But this tiny, tiny sport has been the best American sport in Winter Olympics history by a large medal margin, a sport with a legacy that requires both preservation and accountability.

This tiny, tiny sport once gave us a Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year in Bonnie Blair, the wondrous perseverance of Dan Jansen, five gold medals in one Olympics by Eric Heiden, and the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics with Shani Davis at Turin in 2006.

For the U.S., speedskating is to the Winter Games what swimming is to the Summer Games. If the Americans don’t win a medal here, it will be their first Olympic shutout in 30 years. Even as recently as this season’s World Cup, this tiny, tiny sport has been absolutely huge for the U.S.

And now, nothing? Just like that, the domination ends? It is fair to ask why, even as it is sad to see the skaters seem to grow visibly queasy at the question.

“I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Heather Richardson, the world’s top-ranked women’s skater, said Sunday after her seventh-place finish in the 1,500. “We’re just trying to forget each day and start a fresh new day.”

The saddest spot for a U.S. Olympian is even sadder when one realizes they should not have to be there on their own. You know whom you won’t find in the media pit? You won’t find the USA Speedskating official who decided team members would wear those fancy new Under Armour Mach 39 suits during the Olympics, even though they had never been worn in a race.

It turns out, the suit contains a flap that might actually slow the Americans down. A couple of days ago, the team voted to shed the new gear and return to wearing time-worn togs, but by then the distraction had taken its toll.

“In any scenario, you want to try something on before you try it on one of the biggest race stages of your life,” Davis told reporters about the suit after finishing eighth and 11th in his two best races. “I would much rather try it out, if I had the option, way before the Olympics.”

You know who else you won’t find in the media pit? Whoever decided the team would train for the Olympics at altitude in Collalbo, Italy, instead at sea level in Sochi. All sorts of coaches have questioned that decision this week.

“I knew it was the wrong thing,” said Nancy Swider-Peltz, who coaches Brian Hansen. “I knew it would take a toll.”

To all of this, Shimabukuro said the uniforms could have been an issue, the altitude should not have been an issue, but that there was only one thing for certain: “Obviously, they are top competitors, they’ve still got to put all that aside, go to the line and do the best they can,” he said.

For the lost U.S. speedskaters in this basement Olympics, it turns out the racing is the easy part.

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