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Olympics: U.S. speedskating woes deepen with another debacle

Published February 15, 2014 10:29 am

Speedskating • U.S. in disarray after suit switch fails to yield better result.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Sochi, Russia • So it wasn't the suits, then.

In the first race since American speedskaters were allowed to ditch their new, high-tech skinsuits amid a disastrous performance at the Sochi Olympics, two-time champion and world-record holder Shani Davis finished far back in 11th place Saturday and left the world to continue wondering just what has happened to the once-powerful program.

"It's really hard to pinpoint," national-team coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. "We have five different training programs, five different coaches, different training locations, and we're coming up short — to say the least. It's frustrating. It's very confusing."

The latest tough day on the ice at Adler Arena left the Americans still without a single medal — nothing better than a seventh-place finish, in fact — despite entering the competition with high hopes for a medal haul to rival past Olympics.

And it came the day after U.S. Speedskating officials agreed after meeting with the skaters to get rid of their new "Mach 39" skinsuits that had come under such suspicion as a potential cause for the disappointing results, and use their old ones.

Still, nothing changed.

While Davis finished nearly a full second behind winner Zbigniew Brodka of Poland in what could be his last individual Olympic race — that's an eternity in speedskating — teammate Brian Hansen finished seventh after both struggled similarly in the 1,000 meters last week.

In that race, the top two American men finished eighth and ninth.

"It was very hard to come back from that loss," Davis said. "I did the best I could, but it just wasn't good enough, man. It just wasn't good enough."

Most of the attention has focused on the suits produced by Under Armour and defense contractor Lockheed Martin that skaters debuted here at the Olympics without ever wearing them before in competition.

But the Americans have been losing by margins far greater than can be explained by a different skinsuit, and the results have laid bare new schisms within the historically fractious speedskating community.

Four-time Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz, who coaches Hansen, was among the chorus of voices questioning U.S. Speedskating, based at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.

She said the team relies too much on science instead of intuition, should not have waited until the Olympics to debut the new skinsuits, and should have held its pre-Olympic training camp somewhere with conditions to mimic the "slow" ice at sea level in Sochi, rather than at altitude in Collalbo, Italy.

"I knew it was the wrong thing," she said. "I knew it would take a toll. I think we had something to battle that should not have been in the mix. … I am tired of not being believed. I am tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience are not good enough. You can't teach a scientist to be a coach."

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel quoted one source who said Americans have underperformed at sea level over the past five years, winning medals in only 26 percent of World Cup races at sea-level over that span as opposed to 44 percent of races at altitude.

But Shimabukuro was having none of it.

The top skaters "have set track records all over the world at sea level," he said. "They did it this year. I don't know how many medals they've won at sea-level competitions, World Cup, domestic and so forth. So where people are getting this information from, they're getting it from a pothead, because they don't know."

Shimabukuro also took issue with the "armchair quarterbacks who have never put on a pair of skates before in their life" and have questioned the team's decision to prepare in Collalbo.

"I'm going to squash this right now," he said. "We used the same set-up for the Collalbo camp going into [the 2006 Turin Olympics] with a lot of success — with Shani Davis. Number two, there were other countries there, other teams there that were in Collalbo at the same time that are having success here, as well."

"And when we had our post-camp coaches meeting, everybody was on board that they felt it was a successful, well-run camp," he said. "We got a lot out of it, and it was good preparation coming into Sochi."

So what's the problem, then?

It won't be until after the Olympics that officials will be able to fully analyze what's going wrong, Shimabukuro said.

The Americans have at most two more chances at a medal, with West Jordan's Heather Richardson and Salt Lake City's Brittany Bowe in the women's 1,500 on Sunday and the men competing in the team pursuit next Saturday.

But the results so far could undermine the women's confidence, something Davis said happened to him after his stunning disappointment in the 1,000.

"You start questioning if you got what it takes," said Davis, a part-time Salt Lake City resident.

Davis also said he was distracted by all the fretting about the new suits that erupted after Richardson and Bowe finished seventh and eighth in their 1,000-meter race — a distance at which they were the top two skaters on the World Cup tour this season — and was disappointed the skaters had to wait until the Olympics to test the new suits in competition.

"You can't do that at the Olympics," he said. "There's too much riding on it. Too many things are a factor. You just can't do that."