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Kurt Kragthorpe and Michael C. Lewis
Kurt Kragthorpe and Michael C. Lewis report from Sochi, Russia. For more Olympics coverage, go to our Olympics page.

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U.S. speedskaters cut time but can’t find medal stand

Sochi, Russia • Everybody is wondering what is wrong with U.S. Speedskating, with its heralded athletes having been shut out halfway through the competition at the Sochi Olympics.

Is it the ice?

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Is it the training?

Is it the fancy new suits?

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything, combined simply with better — much better — performances by other teams. After all, the top Americans have taken good chunks of time off their performances at the only previous major competition held at Adler Arena, suggesting they have trained well and indeed are in peak condition, only to be beaten still by some pretty monstrous margins.

West Jordan’s Heather Richardson, for example, skated the 1,000 meters here in 1 minute, 15.23 seconds — a whopping 0.87 seconds faster than when she raced the same distance at the World Single Distance Championships last March, another top competition for which the athletes were trying to peak.

But her time in the Olympic race was good for only seventh, an incredible 1.21 seconds behind winner Zhang Hong of China, who was seventh at worlds but 2.46 seconds faster in the Olympics. That margin for Richardson was nearly twice the size by which she lost at worlds last year, although perhaps it’s instructive to know she finished only sixth that time.

Shani Davis provides another interesting example.

Davis, the two-time Olympic champion and world-record holder, raced the 1,000 — his signature distance — in 1:09.12, or 0.18 seconds faster than at worlds last year. That’s a significant margin in speedskating that normally would be cause for some celebration, though Davis said he felt as if he just couldn’t get going through the middle of the race.

But while Davis was third at worlds just 0.16 seconds behind the winner, he was eighth in his Olympic race, 0.73 seconds behind winner Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands. Same with world-record holder Brittany Bowe of Salt Lake City, who was third in the 1,000 at worlds by 0.44 seconds in 1:15.87 and finished her Olympic race in 1:15.47 — 0.40 seconds better but a colossal 1.45 seconds behind the winner.

That’s way too much time to blame on just a suit.

Groothis was 1.44 seconds faster in the Olympics than at world championships, where he finished eighth. In fact, the top three finishers in the men’s 1,000 at worlds last year finished far off the podium in the Olympics, with Kazakhstan’s Denis Kuzin going from first to eighth, Korea’s Mo Tae-Bum going from second to 12th and Davis going from third to eighth.

Skaters from the Netherlands have dominated the Olympic program so far, winning 12 of 18 available medals. But some of them did not compete at worlds last year, perhaps helping skew expectations for the Americans. Michel Mulder, Koen Verweij, Margot Boer, and Lotta Van Beek — all in the top six of their respective 1,000 races — were not in Sochi for worlds last year.

— Michael C. Lewis

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