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Kragthorpe: Utah-based skiers shine, speedskaters struggle in Sochi

Published February 22, 2014 8:14 am

Olympics • While skiers claim a dozen medals, speedskaters go home with just one short track silver
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Krasnaya Polyana, Russia

The 40-mile distance between Kearns and Park City symbolizes the biggest gulf in Team USA's performance in the 2014 Olympics.

It might as well be 40 million miles.

The Kearns-based U.S. Speedskating and the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association of Park City have delivered completely disparate performances in these Games. America is leading the medal count, largely because of USSA-supported athletes in both new and traditional events — and with little thanks to the speedskaters.

Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin delivered a gold medal Friday night in the women's slalom, following Wednesday's win by Park City's Ted Ligety. Skiers and snowboarders have accounted for eight of the nine U.S. golds in these Games.

A silver medal produced by four Salt Lake Valley residents in a short-track relay Friday barely eased the troubles of the speedskaters. The controversy continued this week when Maria Lamb, who lives in Park City and trains in Kearns, cited U.S. Speedskating's dysfunctional culture. Some speedskaters have succeeded in the recent past "in spite of the organization, rather than because of it," Lamb said after finishing 16th (last) in the 5,000 meters. The issues "came to a head that we could no longer perform well."

Insiders agree with Lamb. They point to inflated expectations in Sochi, the residual effects of in-fighting that negatively affected the athletes instead of supporting them, and other administrative issues that recent changes in leadership eventually may resolve. If anything, the controversy about the new Mach 39 suits that were tested at the Utah Olympic Oval, worn initially in Sochi and then replaced, tends to obscure bigger problems.

In a Tribune interview last month, U.S. Speedskating executive director Ted Morris said, "It's definitely safe to say that we feel very good about where we are," adding that at a minimum, he would "still be happy" with six medals.

Even that total seems ridiculously ambitious now, of course. The medal hopes for Shani Davis, Heather Richardson, Brittany Bowe and short-track athlete J.R. Celski were realistic, but the same could not be said of others. The medals shutout is the first for U.S. long-track speedskaters since 1984.

Lamb's claim that the athletes were "defeated by" the former leadership has some basis, according to those familiar with the organization's workings. Morris and Mike Plant, the board's new president, should be able to straighten out the operation. But there's no do-over in Sochi, or taking back those promising forecasts.

The USSA, meanwhile, is living up to expectations. The skiers and snowboarders won't come close to their remarkable 21-medal haul of 2010 (they have 17), and the picture would be different without the eight medals that have come in new events. But those do count.

Most impressively, the USSA has produced eight gold medals, topping the six from Vancouver. The organization lost a gold medalist to Russia, as American-born Vic Wild won the snowboard parallel slalom event after marrying a Russian athlete. He switched allegiances, citing the USSA's lack of funding for his specialty.

Otherwise, the USSA is thriving. Even without star Lindsey Vonn, sidelined by a knee injury, the Alpine team has overcome a slow start to earn five medals, highlighted by gold for Ligety and Shiffrin. Freestyle skiers have produced seven medals, including a sweep in the new men's ski slopestyle event and two golds in another new discipline, men's and women's ski halfpipe.

Maybe the speedskaters just need to invent some new races.