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Olympics / Sports

USA's Shani Davis competes during the Men's 1500 meter speed race at Adler Arena during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, February 15, 2014. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

US skaters switch to old suits, continue to struggle

SOCHI, Russia -- The suits showed up. The racers in them did not.

When U.S. speedskaters took the ice Saturday in the men's 1,500-meter, they wore racing suits by Under Armour made for their successful World Cup season. Gone were the Mach 39 suits Under Amour debuted for these Games, the ones that had come to the symbolize American futility.

But the day ended as every day in Sochi has since the opening ceremony: no U.S. skaters on the podium at Adler Arena.

Brian Hansen finished seventh. Chicago-native Shani Davis -- who took silver in the 1,500 the last two Games -- was 11th. Joey Mantia was 22nd. Jonathan Kuck, 37th. A disastrous Olympics for US Speedskating, which has won more medals for the country than any other winter sport, continues unabated.

"There were just so many things going on, with what's going on with this, what's going on with that, what's got to happen here," said Davis, 31. "I think if we could eliminate all those distractions and I could've just put that energy into performing and skating, it would've been a totally different outcome."

The constant talk surrounding the Mach 39 did not help anyone connected to the team. After a meeting Friday that included 17 skaters and US Speedskating coaches and staff, the team sought approval from the International Skating Union to use the old suits. That approval came very early Saturday in Sochi.

Hansen, 23, said he felt more excited and confident back in the older suit.

"It was a little tough for me to focus on what I was trying to do," said Hansen, who clocked 1:45.59, a half second behind winner Zbigniew Brodka of Poland.

Despite not medaling, Hansen was glad the swap of suits had been made.

"The other skin suit may still be the fastest skin suit in the world," Hansen said. "But part of the problem is that we haven't had the chance to race in it and have the results to know it's the fastest skin suit in the world."

For Davis, these Olympics changed after the 1,000, a race in which he was the heavy favorite, owns the world-record and still calls himself the "king" of. He finished eighth, denying him from becoming the first American man to win the same event in three straight Winter Olympics.

"It almost sucked all the life out of me," Davis said. "It was very hard to come back from that."

Davis, the world's top-ranked skater, said questions about potential design flaws in the new suit were first brought to him by a Dutch reporter. He said he later brought it up with US Speedskating. The suit was not used in competition prior to the Olympics, a decision that skaters say was made by US Speedskating and Under Armour. If there is a problem with the suit, the time to fix it came and went during World Cup racing, Davis said.

"You can't do that at the Olympics," Davis said. "There's too much riding on it."

Dutch skater Mark Tuitert, the defending Olympic champion in the 1,500 who finished fifth Saturday, was more blunt: "It's just plain stupid not to test the suits in a race before the Olympics."

If any blame is to be deflected from the suits, some in the sport look at the team's pre-Olympic training.

Nancy Swider-Peltz, Hansen's personal coach but not a member of the national coaching staff, vehemently criticized the federation for having the team prepare in the Italian Alps leading up to the Games.

While training at higher altitudes to build strength and endurance is common, Swider-Peltz said the outdoor rink in Collabo, Italy, was cold and windy, far from ideal conditions for preparing for an Olympic speedskating raced indoors.

"Collabo was a mistake," said Swider-Peltz, a four-time Olympic speedskater. "I knew it was the wrong thing and I knew it was going to take a toll by some tenths of second."

US Speedskating coaches and executives defended that decision earlier this week.

Just as the story of these Games has stayed the same for the U.S., so it goes for the dominant Dutch.

With Koen Verweij's silver in the 1,500 Saturday, the Netherlands grabbed its 13th speedskating medal of these Games, an Olympic record.

Dutch coach Jillert Anema dismissed the idea that a racing suit could be entirely responsible for the United States' slow times. But he agreed with Davis that if there were a problem, it should have been addressed ahead of arriving in Sochi.

"Skating is a feeling and you cannot allow yourself to have your feelings go down," Anema said. "There is no one thing in skating. In skating, there is belief, there is feeling. It's like a religion."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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