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Olympics / Sports

U.S. Speedskating confident it will regain its storied success at Games

Not long ago, the chances of U.S. Speedskating putting a bunch of athletes on the podium at the 2014 Winter Olympics appeared thinner than April ice.

The organization had accounted for 85 of Team USA's 274 medals (31 percent) in Winter Games history and had produced some of America's most decorated Olympians, including Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Apolo Anton Ohno.

But after the 2010 Vancouver Games, U.S. Speedskating went into rebuilding mode.

On the long-track side, Chad Hedrick (five medals) had retired and the women were coming off a second straight Olympics with no podium finishes.

On the short-track side, Ohno (eight medals) had finished his remarkable career and Katherine Reutter (two medals) would be forced into retirement by injuries.

The short-track team also was rocked by scandals involving head coach Jae Su Chun, who resigned and was banned from coaching for two years following athletes' allegations of abuse, and skater Simon Cho, who admitted he'd tampered with a Canadian skater's blades.

Finally, Mike Plant was named president of U.S. Speedskating and led a reform that fundamentally changed the way the organization was governed, moving it from an unwieldy volunteer-driven federation to one run almost totally by professional staff.

The retirements of some of its star athletes and the organizational turmoil and distractions so close to the Sochi Games were worrisome to U.S. Speedskating leaders.

"When we did all of our high-performance planning in April or May with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the staff, I think we were all a little bit worried about the results that we were looking at in Sochi," Plant said.

On the eve of the XXII Winter Games, however, confidence has replaced concern. While the short-track team remains a work in progress, U.S. Speedskating has brought one of its deepest and strongest long-track teams to Russia.

"This could be the best team we've had in 10 or 15 years -- at least since 2002 and maybe longer," said three-time Olympic medalist Joey Cheek.

"We're as deep as ever," said Jeff Klaiber, a former two-time Olympian and Milwaukee-based coach. "I've never seen a team as deep."

And this, from speedskating icon and NBC analyst Dan Jansen: "If they go the way I think they're capable, I'm going to say 10 medals is possible."

It helps to have 31-year-old Shani Davis in top form and practically a lock to add to the four Olympic medals he's already won. He is the two-time defending champion in the 1,000 meters, has a pair of silver medals in the 1,500 and goes into the Games ranked No. 1 in the World Cup standings in both races.

"Anytime I step out on the ice and I put my hood on I have something to prove to whoever is watching," Davis said. "I've been doing this for 25 years, since I was 6 years old, and I just love to be in the position I'm in now, because years ago I would have never thought I'd be as good as I am now. I'm just so thankful that I'm here now."

What's exciting to Davis, and soon will become apparent to fans watching the Olympics on television, is how much talent has come up around him.

"It's never easy and it's never by chance," said national sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "Our management staff and our high-performance staff have done a great job of forging a culture of training and team-building."

With Shimabukuro and coach Kip Carpenter working with the national team in Salt Lake City and private coaches Klaiber and Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. grooming Olympians at the Pettit National Ice Center, the long-track team has made significant strides.

Brian Hansen, who lives in Milwaukee and trains at the Pettit Center, has made a big jump in the last two seasons and has closed the gap on Davis in the middle distances.

"I know Brian wants to beat me," Davis said. "I don't want him to beat me, so it's pushing me a lot."

Hansen, who won a silver medal in team pursuit in Vancouver, is ranked third in the 1,000 and fourth in the 1,500, even though he skipped two of the four fall World Cups.

"If you look at Shani's career, he has like 50-some World Cup wins," Hansen said. "I have one. So when you compare the two it's not the same at all, but when you look at where I've been time-wise compared to him the last two years you can see every race has been really close."

In the women's middle-distance races, roommates and rivals Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe have pushed each other to the top of the World Cup standings.

Richardson is ranked No.1 and Bowe is No.2 in the 1,000, and Bowe holds the world record. In the 1,500, Bowe is ranked third and Richardson is fourth. Richardson also is ranked third in the 500 and won all three races at the U.S. Olympic trials.

"Brittany and Heather are far and away the best middle-distance skaters in the world," Cheek said.

The U.S. hasn't put a woman on the Olympic podium in long track since 2002, when Chris Witty won gold in the 1,000 and Jen Rodriguez won a pair of bronze medals.

"I think that's very likely to change," Richardson said of the drought. "We've medaled in every 1,000 meters this year, one and two, me and Brittany."

Those two alone could win four medals in Sochi.

"I'm really excited," said Blair, who will be part of the official U.S. delegation. "You could get two on the podium not once but maybe twice."

In the men's 500, Tucker Fredricks of Janesville and Mitch Whitmore of Waukesha are medal contenders. Whitmore is fifth and Fredricks is sixth in the World Cup standings.

Jonathan Kuck is No.6 in the men's 5,000 and Jilleanne Rookard is No.11 in the women's 3,000 and both have outside shots to medal.

Then there is team pursuit. Davis has never skated the event at the Olympics but when asked if he would do so in Sochi he said, "Yeah, sure. Why not?" He would make the U.S. men's team an instant medal contender.

The short-track team is not as strong or as deep as the long-track team, but J.R. Celski won two medals in Vancouver and Jessica Smith dominated at the trials.

U.S. speedskaters won 11 medals in Salt Lake City in 2002, 10 in Turin in 2006 and 10 in Vancouver.

This team could wind up being as good or better than any of them.

"We won 10 in Vancouver," Plant said. "I definitely think that's a number these guys can achieve."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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