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Olympics / Sports

Speedskating collapse for the United States

SOCHI, Russia -- Long-track speedskaters from the United States never skated better in the months leading up to the Winter Olympics than they did last fall. They won 28 medals and topped the podium 12 times in World Cup races. They felt strong and "snappy," a skater's term for quick-twitch muscles working at peak efficiency.

The Americans arrived in Sochi with a mountain of confidence and wearing new, high-tech skin suits that were supposed to be the fastest in the world. Experts predicted a medal haul.

Instead, in one of the most shocking developments of the Winter Games, the U.S. has been shut out on the 400-meter oval at the Adler Arena.

If the Americans do not win a medal in the final two races, men's and women's team pursuit Saturday, they will go home without a single podium finish in speedskating at the Olympics for the first time in 30 years.

While theories abound -- it's the skin suits or the altitude training or the decision to send the athletes to Collalbo, Italy, for their pre-Olympics camp -- some insiders view the collapse as the result of years of dysfunction at U.S. Speedskating.

"It's like the fall of the Roman Empire," said Milwaukee-based coach Bob Fenn, who pointed to constant infighting, turmoil and frequent turnover and recycling of coaches, high-performance directors and executives at the federation.

Maria Lamb, a River Falls, Wis., native and three-time Olympian, was the latest to fail for the U.S., finishing last out of 16 women in the 5,000-meter race Wednesday. Afterward, she could not hold back in offering her opinion about what's gone wrong.

"I think over the last several years most of us have managed to perform incredibly well in spite of a lot of the organization rather than because of it," Lamb told reporters. "That adds up over the years, and unfortunately it came to a head that we could no longer perform well over here.

"This is my third Games, and there is so much more nonsense in general going on. You have to try and tune it out. Not having an organization support you as it should, it becomes a lot worse."

Indeed, the long-track team has won progressively fewer medals at the Winter Games since 2002 -- eight, seven, four and zero. That trend suggests problems go much deeper than the kind of skin suit the skaters wear.

It's not fair to point the finger at executive director Ted Morris, who started in September, or Mike Plant, named president of U.S. Speedskating in March. They inherited a toxic environment of athlete grievances, overlapping committees and turf-protecting volunteers, not to mention fresh scars from coaching and skate-tampering scandals on the short-track side.

The onus now will be on Morris and Plant to determine what went wrong in Sochi and make the appropriate fixes, even if it means firing coaches and cleaning house on the high-performance end. It's obvious that the status quo must change.

"I guarantee you we'll do a full evaluation and figure it out," Morris told The Associated Press. "We'll get it right. Hopefully, we'll be celebrating medals with a lot of these same athletes four years from now."

In the meantime, U.S. Speedskating must raise funds, sign sponsors and attract young athletes to the sport, all of which is hard enough to do when Americans are winning medals.

Lacking 'American spirit'

How could skaters who were so dominant in November and December show up at the Olympics and look so woefully unprepared? Their skating has been slow and labored and a poor match technically for the sea-level ice in Sochi.

Gabrielle Hirschberger of Germany said it appeared that the U.S. skaters were "not in shape." Bart Schouten, a Canadian coach who once coached the U.S. team in Milwaukee, said it seemed to him that the U.S. skaters lacked "the American spirit you would expect to see" and suggested that perhaps the team peaked too early.

Even U.S. allround coach Kip Carpenter said, "In my opinion the Dutch (who have dominated with a record 21 medals) are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us."

The reasons could be serious miscalculations in the way U.S. Speedskating prepared its athletes.

At this point, few people close to the team are willing to go on the record. The Journal Sentinel interviewed seven sources with ties to the skaters or U.S. Speedskating but most asked to remain anonymous because they feared repercussions from the federation.

Private coaches, some of whom work at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, have often been at odds with the sport's National Governing Body. Before the Sochi Games, U.S. Speedskating made them sign an agreement that read, in part, "all public and private comments concerning the U.S. team, U.S. staff, USS and the USOC will be of a positive nature."

Perhaps that is why an emotional Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. prefaced comments in the media mixed zone by saying, "I'm going to get in trouble, but I don't care anymore."

Swider-Peltz, who coaches Brian Hansen at the Pettit Center, lambasted U.S. Speedskating for its insistence on altitude training and its decisions to take the team to an outdoor rink in the mountains of Italy before the Olympics and then put them in untested skin suits in Sochi.

"I am tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience are not good enough," Swider-Peltz said. "I am shaking, almost crying here. I think this was a fantastic U.S. team. There is incredible talent. This was an incredible team that should have won the medals that were expected, hands down."

The failures have been across the board.

Shani Davis, with two Olympic gold medals in the 1,000 and two silver medals in the 1,500, finished eighth and 11th in those respective races. In the 1,000, he had a fast opening 200 meters but couldn't carry that speed into his lap. After hundreds of races, Davis knows to the tenth of a second what his lap time should be after a good opener, and this one wasn't in the ballpark.

"I wasn't fast enough today," he said, "and I don't know why."

Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, ranked 1-2 in the 1,000 and 3-4 in the 1,500, failed to finish in the top six in either race. Before the Games, Richardson all but guaranteed that U.S. women would end an Olympic medal drought that dates to 2002.

Hansen, ranked third in the 1,000 and fourth in the 1,500, finished ninth and seventh. Like Davis, he was puzzled by his time in the 1,000. Sprinters Tucker Fredricks of Janesville and Mitch Whitmore of Waukesha, both ranked among the top six in the 500, finished 26th and 27th.

And on and on it went.

"It's hard to shift momentum when you start off trying to keep the ground from falling out from under you," said U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "Once you feel like maybe it's gone, it's hard to change that."

Skin suits a scapegoat

Early on, the Mach 39 skin suit came under a cloud of suspicion. The suit, engineered by Lockheed Martin for Under Armour, was never tested in competition. The skaters first wore the suits in simulated races in Collalbo but meaningful feedback was almost impossible to obtain on a windy, outdoor rink.

The Americans ditched the suits midway through the Games and went back to the suits they wore during the World Cup season. But they fared no better in races after that and the skin suit saga became a distraction and a source of amusement to other teams.

"I have been in many competitions and worn many suits and I've never complained about it," said Artur Was of Poland. "Either change the suit or everyone keep quiet about it."

It now appears that the suit, which underwent rigorous wind-tunnel testing, was a convenient scapegoat and probably fed into the Americans' insecurities about their performances.

"A skater does not lose a second (in the 1,000) because of a skin suit," Carpenter said. "Anyone who thinks that does not know speedskating."

Even Olympic icon Dan Jansen weighed in on the subject, saying, "If the suit is an issue at all, it still is one of several."

If not the suit, then what is to blame?

Many insiders blame U.S. Speedskating's insistence on having its skaters train on fast ice at altitude in Salt Lake City as the root of the problem. That approach worked in 2002, when long-trackers won eight medals on their home ice at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Federation coaches fell in love with altitude training, but the next three Winter Games were held on sea-level tracks in Turin, Vancouver and Sochi and the medal count declined.

And here's a fact that should give pause to the powers at U.S. Speedskating: Over the last two Winter Games, Chad Hedrick is the only skater who trained primarily at altitude to win a medal.

"The results (in Sochi), to me, are a clash of two different programs," said one source with extensive experience in the sport. "It's Dutch vs. USA. One trains at altitude and one trains at sea level. The Dutch have trained right by the water their whole lives and understand how to push heavy air and what tempo is required.

"Our team is trying to glide and carry speed like in Salt Lake City and it's not working."

Milwaukee underutilized

The U.S. Olympic trials were held at the Utah Olympic Oval, as was a World Cup in November. Meanwhile, the Pettit Center, a sea-level track, has been underutilized.

Asked if he thought the trials should have been held in Milwaukee, Jansen said. "Yes, I absolutely think so."

"What truly matters is how to skate at sea level, which is where the vast majority of competitions are," one source said. "You will note that those winning (in Sochi) have a higher stroke frequency than the Americans."

Underscoring their point is evidence that fast ice at altitude does not prepare a skater for slower sea-level ice, which requires a different technique, tempo and effort (typically 10-15 more strokes per lap).

Over the last five years, U.S. long-trackers have won 56 medals in 128 World Cup races at altitude (44 percent) but 104 medals in 398 races at sea level (26 percent). The difference is big enough to at least raise eyebrows.

But Shimabukuro disagreed that the discrepancy indicated a need for more sea-level training. He pointed out that his skaters had won World Cup medals on all types of rinks at sea level and at altitude.

"For a media outlet to be putting that out there is completely irresponsible," he said, adding that the information "was coming from armchair quarterbacks who have never put on a pair of skates in their lives."

Privately, some close to the U.S. team chafed at those comments. One pointed out that NFL coaches try to simulate game conditions as closely as possible in practice. Another said, "Our trials should have been held at the Pettit and our team should have spent a majority of their time in the early fall there. Pretty simple stuff. A fourth-grader could figure it out."

Yet another source pointed out that the U.S. skaters as a whole had "almost no racing experience at sea level this season." Hansen, for example, skipped the final two World Cup races, both of which were on sea-level tracks.

"Then, just prior to the Games, we send all of our athletes outdoors at high altitude in Italy," the source continued. "I understand the blood science and agree with it. However, in this sport I'm certain skating at sea level would better benefit the athletes. There are countless indoor sea-level ovals in Europe they could have spent all of January training in. Shani Davis skated two 1,500s at sea level this season, Brian Hansen zero, Heather Richardson zero 1,500s at sea level.

"To me it is simply, what did they expect?"

Even Whitmore wondered if he would have benefited from more training at the Pettit Center.

"Maybe we need to start working more on sea-level races," he said. "I go pretty fast at altitude."

Pre-Olympic training site

The final straw for some was the decision by Finn Halvorsen, the high-performance managing director, to send the team to Collalbo for its final pre-Olympic training.

Halvorsen oversaw the U.S. team's success in 2002 but was forced to resign as long-track program director of Speed Skating Canada just 11 months before the 2010 Vancouver Games, reportedly because of his tempestuous relationships with athletes and coaches.

"I knew it was the wrong thing," Swider-Peltz said of the Collalbo camp. "I knew it would take a toll. The plan was to retain the altitude that the Salt Lake City skaters had. That's a correct idea but there are other factors that cause you to skate differently. It started playing on people's minds and bodies.

"I did not want to go there but I didn't have a choice. I fought tooth and nail. I fought for days. I wrote emails. I cried. I went crazy. I demanded. I did not want to go there."

Fenn summed it up simply: "They chose the wrong track and place."

Lamb was direct: "(Halvorsen's) done a lot of damage the way he has single-handedly, perhaps, destroyed so many good athletes, at these performance at the Games, due to his calls and actions. It's fairly remarkable, actually."

Shimabukuro defended the Collalbo decision, saying the coaches unanimously agreed it was a productive camp. He pointed out that the U.S. team had trained in Collalbo before the 2006 Winter Games and then won four medals. However, Hedrick, who won two of the four, did not attend the '06 camp, according to Schouten.

"The coaches are not going to say it's their program," Jansen said. "And I'm not saying it's the coaches' program because I think they've worked in the past."

When U.S. Speedskating studies what went wrong in Sochi, the organization likely will conclude that a number of factors contributed to the skaters' poor performances. Shimabukuro called it "a perfect storm for our team, and obviously not in a good way."

"I will take personal accountability for my athletes' performances before I blame anything else," he said. "If I didn't do my job and get my athletes ready optimally for this competition, that's on me."

One source said the team's collapse was the result of "totally misguided athletes reaping the results sown by the experts." Another called the disappointing results "life-altering events, and you can never get them back. The bias embedded in USS has altered the trajectories and lives of several skaters. This is tragic."

Going forward, nothing will be more important than studying where and how the national team trains and how that impacts performance at the Olympics. Plant acknowledged that the organization needed to take a hard look at how it uses the Pettit Center.

"There's no doubt about it," he said. "Ted and I have had conversations about it. We need to make sure there's balance about what we do. How do we make sure we build (the Pettit Center) up and at the same time don't strip Salt Lake City down?"

The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the elevation is about 2,500 feet.

Shani Davis, if he is still skating, will be 35 years old.

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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SPEEDSKATING


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