Olympic Trials: U.S. speedskating teams ready for Sochi
Kearns • Every four-year cycle is different. Storied skaters clad with Olympic medals are eventually faced with the realization of moving on, while youthful and untested talent waits to be molded.
Five weeks away from the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the long- and short-track U.S. speedskating programs finally have their faces for the world's stage. And a relative mix of Olympic-savvy veterans and first-time Olympians will be showcased on the ice.
Shani Davis and Heather Richardson will spearhead the long-track squad as the stars qualified for 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter long-track races during last week's qualifiers at the Utah Olympic Oval.
Behind them is a slew of young skaters ready for prime time.
Seventeen-year-old Emery Lehman, a high school senior from Chicago, put his name on the map by qualifying for both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Brittany Bowe continued her rapid rise on the ice since her collegiate basketball days at Florida Atlantic University, qualifying for three distances at Sochi.
"I think we're pretty strong and really happy and satisfied with the team we've built," said U.S. national long-track coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "From a coach's perspective, I think we're taking one of our strongest teams to the Olympic Games."
That is the general sentiment shared by most of the athletes.
Davis, back-to-back Olympic gold medalist in the 1,000 meters, said younger racers such as Brian Hansen, Joey Mantia and Jonathan Garcia are on his heels heading into Sochi.
"I'm happy that the level of competition in America has risen so high, and it's only going to make us stronger and we'll be able to go out as a team together and compete harder against the guys in the world," Davis said.
Jilleanne Rookard, who competed at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, says seeing Richardson and Bowe two of the world's favorites in Sochi tear up the World Cup circuit in recent years only helps the other American female skaters.
"To have some ultra-fast females, it's really inspiring and motivating and it gets your nerves up," she said.
The short-track team moves on this cycle from decorated stars like Apolo Anton Ohno and Katherine Reutter. In steps 23-year-old J.R. Celski, who dominated the trials, capping his performance with a victory in the 1,000 metes on Sunday. He'll spearhead the five-man short-track team that features newcomers like Eddy Alvarez and Chris Creveling, along with 2010 team member Jordan Malone.
After Ohno retired from international competition, Celski took it upon himself to lead the next generation. And the star, who will have competition from a stacked South Korean program in Sochi, has his sights set higher than Olympic qualifiers.
"I like to think that domestic obviously is awesome to come out here and skate like this, but my eyes are focused on the bigger picture," he said. "I came into this season wanting to be the best, and that's what I'm trying to do every single day I get out on the ice."
Alvarez, a former Salt Lake Community College baseball player from Miami, said Celski, his childhood friend, will be hard to beat when the Games start Feb. 7.
"He is on his A-game right now," Alvarez said. "I don't think there would be a race that he would lose at the Games right now Â if he's skating like this, I don't think he could a race in the Games."
Jessica Smith will headline an American group that sends just three skaters to Sochi after failing to qualify an Olympic relay team for the first time. Joining her will be Emily Scott and Alyson Dudek.
The short-track program remains bent on repairing the damage after the splintering of the program in late 2012 when former coach Jae Su Chun was eventually dismissed in lieu of allegations of mental and verbal abuse.
Smith, who remained training under Chun, said the team is focused on staying together ahead of the Games. The team came together for a camp before the Torino World Cup stop this season and could possibly do so once again in Germany before Sochi, Smith said.
"We're all wanting to win," Smith said. "We all want each other to do well. At the end of the day, we're about USA."
Americans on ice
U.S. Olympic speedskating teams heading to Sochi
Women • Brittany Bowe (Ocala, Fla.), Lauren Cholewinski (Rock Hill, S.C.), Kelly Gunther (Lorain, Ohio), Maria Lamb (River Falls, Wis.), Heather Richardson (High Point, N.C.), Anna Ringsred (Duluth, Minn.), Jilleanne Rookard (Woodhaven, Mich.), Sugar Todd (Milwaukee)
Men • Shani Davis (Chicago), Tucker Fredricks (Janesville, Wis.), Jonathan Garcia (Houston), Brian Hansen (Glenview, Ill.), Jonathan Kuck (Champaign, Ill.), Emery Lehman (Oak Park, Ill.), Joey Mantia (Ocala, Fla.), Patrick Meek (Chicago), Mitch Whitmore (Waukesha, Wis.)
Women • Jessica Smith (Melvindale, Mich.), Emily Scott (Springfield, Mo.), Alyson Dudek (Hales Corners, Wis.)
Men • J.R. Celski (Federal Way, Wash.), Eddy Alvarez (Miami), Chris Creveling (Kintnresvilee, Pa.), Jordan Malone (Dentox, Texas), Kyle Carr (Peach Tree City, Ga.)