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Olympics / Sports

Richardson, Bowe aim to end U.S. women's medal drought

SOCHI, Russia -- They are rivals on the ice and inseparable best friends off it, one minute battling for the top of the podium and the next making plans to catch a movie or hang out in the hot tub.

Together, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe give U.S. Speedskating its best 1-2 punch in women's long-track since Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez won Olympic medals in 2002.

U.S. women were shut out in Turin in 2006 and again in Vancouver four years later.

"I think that's very likely to change (in Sochi)," Richardson said of the medals drought.

Though Richardson finished a disappointing eighth in the 500 meters Tuesday and Bowe was 13th, their best races are yet to come: the 1,000 on Thursday and the 1,500 on Sunday.

"I think we're in a really good spot for our 1,000 meter, which is both of our strongest race," Bowe said.

What makes their friendship so unusual is that they train together every day, compete in the same races and have the same goals. Both are ultracompetitive and one would think that at some point the tension would cause a sharp exchange of words, a petty jealousy, a falling out.

"You would think that," said sprinter Mitch Whitmore of Waukesha, Wis,m who shares a condo with Richardson, Bowe and Sugar Todd in Park City, Utah. "You would think there would be some hostility of some sort. But they've been fine with it."

Speedskating icon Bonnie Blair pointed out that in many other individual sports, top athletes "don't want to be near each other."

"Look at figure skating," Blair said. "That can be kind of cutthroat."

Or, in the case of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, knee-whack. And it's not just figure skaters. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren't exactly best buds. Sean Rash and Jason Belmonte, the top two bowlers in the world, can't stand each other. Even speedskating had a simmering rivalry between Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick.

Richardson and Bowe make it work because they put their friendship above whatever happens on the ice.

"When we're racing each other, there's no friendship there," Bowe said. "We're competitors. But at the end of the day whoever is the fastest is going to win. It's you vs. the clock. It's not me vs. Heather or Heather vs. me. We leave it on the track. We give it our all and then we go home, sit on the couch, have a cup of coffee, watch TV. We're back to being friends.

"I think it's a really healthy relationship and it's something special."

Richardson, 24, of High Point, N.C., was a world champion in-line racer who switched over to the ice in 2007 and quickly became a world-class speedskater. At 20, she competed in the 2010 Vancouver Games, finishing sixth in the 500, ninth in the 1,000 and 16th in the 1,500.

Bowe, who turns 26 on Feb. 24, watched those Olympics on television at her home in Ocala, Fla., and was inspired. She also had been an in-line racer and played basketball for Florida Atlantic University, but dreamed of being an Olympian.

"I knew basketball wasn't going to take me to the Olympics," Bowe said. "When I saw the 2010 Vancouver Games on TV, it just really lit a fire. I knew I needed to make the switch to ice to make my Olympic dream come true."

Bowe never tried speedskating before she moved to Utah in 2010. Immediately, she hit it off with Richardson, whom she had known through in-line racing. They became fast friends and then roommates.

"I'm very lucky to have her," Richardson said. "She pushes me in training just like I push her. I'm very thankful for her. I think that we both want to win so we go out and we push each other hard. I think that's a good quality in both of us to take us to the next level."

Dan Jansen said he had a similar relationship with Nick Thometz when they competed head to head as long-track sprinters in the 1980s and '90s.

"Even though you're friends, he knows that I want to beat him and I know that he wants to beat me," Jansen said. "And that's OK. There was no tension between us. I know other sports are not that way."

Richardson is slightly better than Bowe in the 500 and the roles are reversed in the 1,500, though Richardson has come on strong in that race this year (Bowe is No. 3 in the World Cup rankings and Richardson is No. 4).

In the 1,000, they are typically tenths of a second apart. Richardson is ranked No. 1 and Bowe is No. 2, but Bowe owns the world record of 1 minute 12.58 seconds, which she set during a World Cup in Salt Lake City in November.

Richardson won all three races at the Olympic trials by slim margins of 0.51 and 0.81 in the 500, 0.70 in the 1,000 and 0.77 in the 1,500.

"They go back and forth," said teammate Jilleanne Rookard. "I've known Brittany and Heather since they were little and I watched them beat everybody on in-lines and now I'm watching them beat me, unfortunately. But they're good girls. They're really fun to watch. It's exciting."

The key to their success, Richardson and Bowe say, is that they push each other every day in training sessions at the Utah Olympic Oval.

"It's really special to have the fastest girl in the world on my team and working with me day in and day out," Bowe said. "I think we're really lucky to have each other. We push each other to the limit every day in practice. Not many people get to say they have two of the top girls in the world training on the same team. But we have that and we're definitely lucky."

Said Blair, "You help each other. You have this realization that I might not even be here if not for this person."

After training or races, no matter the outcome, Richardson and Bowe congratulate each other and then make plans for the night.

"We just hang out, lay on the couch, watch TV," Richardson said. "We saw 'The Hunger Games' together. Sugar and Mitch are always there, too. It's just a fun atmosphere."

Whitmore said he had some reservations before he moved in with three women.

"I was a little concerned with all that estrogen in there," he said. "But they've been great. I know for me, I cheer on Heather and Brittany equally. I don't care who wins as long as it's one of those two and the other one gets second."

Richardson and Bowe both finished on the podium in the 1,000 at every fall World Cup. They're poised to end the women's medal drought Thursday.

"We are the favorites to be on the podium in that race," Bowe said. "If we can make that come true it would be an awesome honor."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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