Olympics / Sports

Canada's Christine Nesbitt competes during the ladies 1000 meter race at Adler Arena during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, February 13, 2014. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

US speedskaters iced out of the Sochi Olympics

SOCHI, Russia -- The Sochi Games are, officially, a disaster for U.S. Speedskating.

With six of 12 races in the books, the long-track team has produced zero medals and, shockingly, not a single top-six finish. Some of the best skaters in the world haven't even been a factor in races they have dominated.

A team that was forecast by Dan Jansen to win eight to 10 medals and called "the best team we've had in 10 or 15 years" by Joey Cheek has laid a rotten, stinking egg at the Adler Arena.

What's to blame? Could it be what the skaters are wearing?

The latest disappointments were Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, who went into the women's 1,000 on Thursday ranked first and second in the world but finished seventh and eighth, both of them falling off the pace midway through the race and laboring to the finish line.

"I'm at a loss for words right now," said U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "The competition writes its own story. I don't have to give a quote. The results are on the board."

The U.S. team seemed poised for success coming off a productive World Cup season.

Just as it did before the 2006 Turin Games, the team did its final pre-Olympics training at altitude in Collalbo, Italy, to get an aerobic boost before coming down to sea level in Sochi.

The skaters all say they feel fit and strong.

"We've had a great lead-up into the Games and for whatever reason right now we're getting skunked," Shimabukuro said.

One possible explanation is that most of the team trains on the fastest ice in the world in Salt Lake City and the ice in Sochi is slow "working ice," which requires a different technique because there is less glide.

"It's tough ice. It's slow," said Joey Mantia. "It's not what we're used to in Salt Lake."

But Shani Davis and Brian Hansen train at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee and have fared no better than the rest of the team.

Shimabukuro dismissed the suggestion that the slower ice had anything to do with his skaters' performances.

"Our team has produced on sea-level tracks and altitude tracks all over the world this year," he said. "I think the ice has been good. I think the ice-makers have done a fabulous job for the most part. I don't think ice plays a role in that."

Then there's another plausible explanation:

It's the skin suit.

The high-tech Mach 39 Speedskating Suit, developed by defense contractor Lockheed Martin for Under Armour, was supposed to give the Americans an advantage at the Sochi Games. The suit is made of five textiles and features small polyurethane bumps on the hood, forearms and legs to disrupt airflow.

Engineers did extensive testing on the Mach 39 in a wind tunnel in Baltimore, but the skaters did not wear it in any competitions before the Sochi Games. That's right. The U.S. team is wearing a suit that never passed muster in races before it was unveiled for the biggest competition in the sport.

Could the Mach 39 actually be slowing down the skaters instead of speeding them up?

"I'm not going to comment on that," Shimabukuro said. "Under Armour has been a great partners of ours. We still have to toe the line and compete."

Shimabukuro was asked two more questions about the suits and replied with a terse "no comment" to both. He wasn't going to mock the Mach.

But he did say this: "We're obviously trying to evaluate the variables that could be there but nothing that I'm going to go on record with. We're halfway through the competition. We have more events coming up. So I'm not going to speculate on what those could be at this time."

If the team performed well in competitions leading up to the Games, benefited from pre-Olympics training in Italy and showed up in Sochi strong and fit, what other variables could there be? It's also informative that the Dutch, who have been fixtures on the podium here, tried a similar suit a few years ago and discarded it because it didn't work.

When Davis, the world record-holder in the 1,000 and a two-time gold medal-winner in the Olympics, is slow in his race and doesn't know why, it could only be because of something for which he was unprepared.

For better or worse, it appears the U.S. team is stuck with the Mach 39 for the duration of the Games. Richardson said skin suits must be pre-approved for Olympic competition and the skaters could not go back to the suits they used during the World Cup season.

The skaters themselves have not blamed the suit, saying they trust the technology.

"Realistically, while you're skating the skin suit feels pretty much the same," said Jilleanne Rookard, who finished 10th in the women's 3,000 meters. "The kind of testing that they do is something that's going to take hundredths of a second off your time and when you're skating that's something you can't really feel. But they feel good. They feel fast -- as fast a skin suit can feel."

Whatever's to blame, at this rate, a shutout is possible for U.S. Speedskating, which leads all other sports with 85 medals at the Winter Games and has produced icons such as Jansen, Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair.

"All it takes is one day," Shimabukuro said. "I've seen skaters bounce back overnight and go from dead last to winning a race. Each race at the Olympics is its own competition and you have to look at what you did before, evaluate it and apply the corrections to what you felt like you didn't do well in the race before. You've got to move on."

The question is, move on to what?

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services




blog comments powered by Disqus