Don't blame the Dutch: US speedskating troubles defy explanation

With Heather Richardson finishing seventh in the 1,500 meters Sunday, it's likely that US Speedskating will leave the Sochi Olympics without a medal.

Matt Dunham/AP
Heather Richardson of the US looks down after competing in the women's 1,500-meter race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday.

A disappointing Olympics for the US speedskating team now looks on the verge of becoming a historically bad showing.

By finishing seventh in the 1,500 meters Sunday, Heather Richardson tied the best result by any US long track speedskater at the Sochi Olympics.

The performance is unexpected. Results on the World Cup circuit suggested that the US would win multiple medals. The eight medals won at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics were seen as an ambitious – though not laughable – target. Richardson was a medal contender in the 500 and 1,000 meters, with Brittney Bowe in contention in the 1,000 and 1,500, like Shani Davis on the men's side. Brian Hansen was also in the mix. 

Now the Americans are virtually certain not to win any individual medals, with only the 10,000 meters remaining. And given their form so far, it would be hard to favor them to make the podium in the team pursuit event. 

The US, which has won more speedskating medals than any other country, could leave the Winter Olympics without a speedskating medal for the first time since 1984.

This comes as the Dutch have blown by the previous record for long track speedskating medals in a single Olympics. East Germany won 13 in 1988; the Dutch have won 16, could have multiple medalists in the 10,000, and are, of course, favorites in the team pursuit. 

The Dutch have swept the podium in three of eight events here, and in Sunday's women's 1,500, they went so far as to sweep the first four places. Two of every three long track speedskating medals awarded in Sochi have gone to the Dutch.

Yet their success has cost the US virtually nothing. Had the Dutch not even come to Sochi, the US would still only have two medals – two bronzes for Richardson in the 1,000 and 1,500.

Almost as concerning as the performances has been the lack of any obvious explanation.

The US team has switched from its "Mach 39" suits, unveiled here and touted as the fastest in the world, back to its previous suits. Some skaters said the suits had panels that created drag, slowing them down. But in the two 1,500 meter races since they switched back, the results were no better.

Critics have chided US Speedskating for not allowing the athletes to wear the suits in competition before Sochi. Even if the suits aren't appreciably slower, they have created a distraction that might have thrown the US team off balance.

"Perhaps the uneasy testing process and uneven rollout of these suits created doubts that U.S. speedskaters just weren't able to push aside, leading to lapses in concentration and various other bumps on the way to the podium," writes Eric Freeman of Yahoo Sports.

Others say that US Speedskating's training practices are misguided. Coaches believe that training at high altitude helps increase performance even at events held at sea level, like Sochi. So the US team's training center is in Salt Lake City and it prepared at altitude in Collalbo, Italy before arriving in Russia.

"Collalbo was a big mistake," Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., who coaches Hansen, told USA Today. "I'm going to get in trouble for it, but I don't care anymore. I am tired of not being believed. I'm tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience is not good enough. You can teach a person with intuition and experience science, but you can't teach a scientist to be a coach. It is something you learn from the very beginning."

But training at altitude hasn't hurt the US before, coaches note. The US won four medals in Vancouver with a team that was not as deep as this one. Moreover, many World Cups are at sea level, and US skaters have done well there.

US Speedskating has taken responsibility. But the mystery remains: Do they have anything to apologize for, and what is it?

"That's something we'll talk about," US Speedskating Executive Director Ted Morris told USA Today. "That's been deferred post Sochi because there's nothing we can do about that now."

He added: "I think that, to be quite honest, we're all a bit stunned."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.