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US speedskaters down to final shots at medals

February 20, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Shani Davis never thought it would come to this.

With the Winter Olympics winding down, the American speedskaters are facing a medal shutout.

“We have zero,” Davis said Thursday. “Yikes.”

Neither the long track nor short track teams has put anyone on the podium during the Sochi Games, a bitter disappointment for a program that has always been one of the most reliable medal producers for the U.S.

Just four years ago in Vancouver, the American skaters won 10 medals overall — four on the big oval and six in short track. U.S. Speedskating likes to boast that it’s won more medals for its country than any other winter sport.

This was expected to be another stellar Olympics, especially in long track with stars such as Davis, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe.

But no American finished higher than seventh in an individual event. That brings it down to the team pursuits for men and women, with the Netherlands heavily favored in both events but the U.S. hoping to sneak away with a medal.

At this point, any color will do.

“The team pursuit is much more important to me now that we’ve had such bad luck throughout the games,” said Brian Hansen, who will join Davis and Jonathan Kuck on the men’s squad. “If we won a medal, I would consider these games a success even though I was hoping for an individual medal.”

The outlook is much the same on the short track side. The Americans would appear to have a decent medal shot in the men’s 5,000-meter relay, where they got into the final thanks to a disqualification and won’t have to face defending champion Canada and 2010 silver medalist South Korea, both of which failed to advance.

Still, the U.S. is feeling some heat. The only time it has failed to win a medal in short track was the 1998 Nagano Games.

“It’s incredible how it worked out,” said Eddy Alvarez, who crashed out of two events and was DQ’d in another. “Of course we expected to win medals. It’s unfortunate that we haven’t been performing at our potential, but things happen.”

The long track program has failed to win a medal at only two Winter Games, most recently at Sarajevo in 1984, and its total collapse in Sochi has been the talk of the oval. Tensions are clearly running high, leading to an uncharacteristic outburst from Maria Lamb after her last-place finish in the women’s 5,000.

The three-time Olympian blasted U.S. Speedskating, saying the national governing body was the main culprit in the team’s Olympic debacle — not the high-tech suits that were embarrassingly dumped midway through the games. She even used an expletive to describe what the athletes have gone through because of organizational infighting.

“The skinsuit issue is honestly just the tip of the iceberg,” Lamb said. “We were all capable of more than we’ve shown here. I’ve watched (teammates) be defeated by some of the leadership in the organization, and it’s heartbreaking for me.”

Plenty of other reasons for the American long track flop have been tossed around:

— U.S. coach Nancy Swider-Peltz, who works with Hansen, has been the most outspoken critic of the decision to train just before the games at an outdoor rink in Italy, when the Olympics are held indoors. “The cold, the wind, those other factors, they cause you to start skating differently,” she said. “That starts playing with people’s minds.”

— Some have speculated that the team peaked too early in the World Cup season and maybe even got a little complacent based on its impressive results. Another U.S. coach, Matt Kooreman, acknowledged that the Dutch skaters are clearly in better shape, having won a staggering 22 medals (21 in long track, another in short track). “That falls on the coach when the whole team sucks,” said Kevin Crockett, a Canadian who coaches South Korea’s sprinters. “They were the best team in the world at the first two World Cups. To go from that to no medals is astounding.”

— Most of the U.S. team is based at the Utah Olympic Oval, where the high-altitude ice produces some of the world’s fastest times. Clearly, the Americans weren’t prepared for the conditions in balmy, seaside Sochi, where the ice requires a more workmanlike approach. “They don’t seem sharp,” said former U.S. coach Bart Schouten, who now works with Canada. “They don’t seem to get good feeling into the ice. They don’t seem to be able to skate with good rhythm. And it’s across the board.”

The short track team was expected to take a step backward after its big haul in Vancouver, having lost its two biggest stars. Apolo Anton Ohno retired to the broadcasting booth, while Katherine Reutter was forced to cut her career short because of injuries.

But a medal shutout would still be a huge disappointment, especially for Celski.


AP Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this report.


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