Kearns • With her mother and aunt watching from the bleachers, speedskater Heather Richardson put herself in position Saturday to become the first American woman in eight years to win the overall title at the World Sprint Championships.
Plus, her teammate is not far behind, in what is essentially a preview of the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
Richardson sits just barely in second place in the overall standings after finishing third in both the 500 and 1,000 meters that were contested on the first day of the two-day event at the jampacked Utah Olympic Oval. Fellow American Brittany Bowe is not far back in sixth, after an impressive second-place finish in the 1,000 in a blowout personal best of 1 minute, 13.68 seconds.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” Bowe said. “I’m very, very happy with my performance.”
Richardson, maybe not so much — even though she has a chance to overhaul current leader Yu Jing of China when skaters race their last 500 and 1,000 on Sunday. In the adjusted scoring system that determines the overall champions, Yu leads by just 0.005 points.
“It’s a good position, but it was a little rough today,” Richardson said. “So I hope tomorrow is better. I had a couple of slips. … I don’t know, maybe some nerves?”
The 23-year-old from North Carolina could be excused, given that she entered the championships as the only real American title hope, barely a year away from the Olympics.
World-record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis surprisingly failed to qualify on the men’s side, and none of the other skaters is quite ready to challenge for the top spot — even though Bowe has impressed her coaches with her amazing results in just her second year on the ice, after transitioning from college basketball and inline skating.
Even with the slips, Richardson was the only woman to finish in the top three of both races.
Yu won the 500 in 37.21 seconds while Richardson clocked 37.31 — Bowe was 13th in a personal-best 38.03 — but she finished only sixth in the 1,000. Overall third-place Sang-Hwa Lee of Korea, who set the 500 world record of 36.80 last weekend in Calgary, was second in the 500 in 37.28 but a distant 12th in the 1,000.
And Canada’s Christine Nesbitt won the 1,000 in 1:12.91 — Richardson clocked 1:13.74 in that race — but was 12th in the 500 and tied with Lee in the overall standings, helping put Richardson in tantalizing territory.
No American woman has even medaled at the world sprints since Jennifer Rodriguez won in 2005, the last time they were held in Utah.
“She’s going to need two big races,” coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. “I was hoping for her to distance herself a little bit … but in a way, this makes it fun, too, right? It’s not a foregone conclusion. Her best skating is still inside of her, and I think we’ll see it” on Sunday.
The men’s competition figured to be a bit less predictable, with Davis missing. Jan Smeekens and Kjeld Nuis of the Netherlands, who had the fastest 500 and the second-fastest 1,000 of the season, respectively, also failed to qualify for the meet.
But countryman Michael Mulder finished fifth in the 500 and third in the 1,000 to take the overall lead, Richardson-style, by 0.185 points over Finland’s Pekka Koskela and the Netherlands’ Hein Otterspeer, who won the 1,000 in 1:07:46.
Four-time champion Lee Kyou-Hyuk of Korea was a distant fourth.
No world records were broken or even threatened on the first day of competition, but Richardson could make the second day a thrill for her family and fans if she can etch her name alongside American legends such as Bonnie Blair, Chris Witty and Rodriguez who have won the women’s sprint title.
“I’m just going to have to pull out two strong races again to hold on,” she said, “but hopefully I can do that.”
R American Heather Richardson sits at second place overall after finishing third in the 500 meters and 1,000 meters.
• Brittany Bowe is in sixth place overall after finishing second in the 1,000.