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U.S. speedskaters come up empty in Utah World Cup, but there’s a wide-reaching plan at work

Despite struggles, athletes and coaches are counting on long-implemented training approach of peaking in January, February

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brittany Bowe skates to a 1:13.55 time and 6th place in the ladies 1000 meter race at the long-track speedskating World Cup at the Kearns Olympic Oval, Sunday, December 10, 2017.

Kearns • Jonathan Garcia is right where he wants to be.

Right now, he’s within striking distance of a World Cup podium, on the outskirts, still just biding his time. Following Sunday’s seventh-place finish in the men’s 1,000-meter final in the final day of the ISU long track World Cup stop in Kearns, Garcia said he was hoping for a Top-6 finish.

Ending up seventh with a new personal best time, at the moment, will do.

“Definitely don’t want to be winning right now,” he added. “If I won, that would’ve been great, but I probably would’ve been a little bit scared, too.”

That’s the plan.

That’s long been the plan.

Even though it might sound a little peculiar.

As World Cup wrapped up its appearance at the Utah Olympic Oval in the Salt Lake City suburb Sunday, the Americans left their home ice, long-dubbed “The Fastest Ice on Earth” without a single podium in the 10 individual racing classifications. Yes, American star and world-record holder Heather Bergsman, who now lives and trains full time in the Netherlands opted out of this weekend’s event to focus on the Olympic trials.

And sure, it would’ve been nice to hear the National Anthem blare throughout the Oval and see at least one skater stand and receive a medal.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shani Davis of the USA, waves to supporters in the crowd after he skated a 1:07.67 time in the men's 1000 meter race at the long-track speedskating World Cup at the Kearns Olympic Oval, Sunday, December 10, 2017. Davis finished in 12th place.

But the initiative set up nearly four years ago, after a star-studded World Cup crew crashed at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is upon the country’s top distance skaters. After staff overhauls post-Sochi, the training blueprint was to utilize the following seasons — and the year leading up to the next Olympics in South Korea — to ensure America’s top athletes peaked in PyeongChang.

Not in World Cups in Norway or Canada or even here in Salt Lake.

“You can look at the results now,” Garcia explained, “the guys that were on fire the first two World Cups, which was a month ago, aren’t winning now. So it’s a crazy roller-coaster speedskating is. It’s really not like any other sport, at least that I’ve seen.”

Garcia said he’s been following his individual plan, based off a series of data points collected over the course of his career on the ice, since late spring. There are checkpoints throughout the year he’s been aiming to hit, like for example, Sunday. The goal was Top 6, but he just outside the goal, but on the right track.

“I can’t maintain being my best every day for six months or two months,” he said. “I really have to make sure I need to strategically place myself in where I need to be throughout the season.”

While also ensuring the right time to hit stride is the first week of January at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Milwaukee, Wisc., and more preferably, a month later inside the rink in PyeongChang. For the casual sports fan, it is hard to follow, Garcia admitted.

“A lot of people don’t understand our sport,” said the 2014 Olympian. “There’s a lot of people in our sport who don’t understand our sport.”

For Brittany Bowe, Sunday’s World Cup finale was a step in the right direction. But not without its own sting. Still working her way back to full strength after being off the ice for nearly 18 months due to lingering concussion symptoms, Bowe’s sixth-place finish in the women’s 1,000-meter final will be remembered as her best race of the young season, but also a race in which she had to sit and see her world record fall.

“Obviously that one breaks my heart having the world record broken,” she said, “but [I’m] worrying about things I can control myself.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brittany Bowe acknowledges the crowd's support after she skated to a 1:13.55 time and 6th place in the ladies 1000 meter race at the long-track speedskating World Cup at the Kearns Olympic Oval, Sunday, December 10, 2017.

Japan’s Nao Kodaira skated a 1:12.09, adding to her banner weekend. She left Kearns with three gold medals. In all, the Japanese women’s side earned seven World Cup medals. Bowe, like Garcia, believes she’s on the correct trajectory despite not having as many World Cup medals or podiums this year to show for it.

“Continuing to trust the process,” she said. “You can look at it from two different ways: Building and if you start off strong, you have a lot of confidence. This whole Japanese team, they’re going into the Olympics really confident. That’s how we were going into the last Games [in Sochi], so it’s a double-edged sword there.”

Skaters and coaches are obviously playing the long game in an Olympics year, keeping their eyes fixated on those weeks in February. Like Bowe said, they’re trusting in the process that they set out on after U.S. Speedskating reconfigured its approach following Sochi.

“Clearly we want to be winning,” said Matt Kooreman, U.S. sprint team coach. “We’re here to win, but I think we’re within range. I think for each person we have on our team, there’s some clear things that we can do to improve to take that next step.”

Three weeks from now, Olympic spots are officially on the line in Milwaukee.

A month later comes PyeongChang, where they’re bound to find out how — and if — their approach pays off.

“You don’t want to be too high, you don’t want to be too low,” Garcia said. “It really is a constant battle every day to get better, go faster every day, but within reason.”

2017 ISU Long-Track World Cup <br>Location »Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns <br>Women’s 1,000-meter final <br>1. Nao Kodaira, Japan, 1:12.09 (new world record) <br>2. Miho Takagi, Japan, 1:12.63 <br>3. Yekaterina Shikhova, Russia,1:13.23 <br>6. Brittany Bowe, USA, 1:13.55 <br>Men’s 1,000-meter final <br>1. Denis Yuskov, Russia, 1:06.92 <br>2. Koen Verweij, Netherlands, 1:06.94 <br>3. Pavel Kulizhnikov, Russia, 1:06.96 <br>7. Jonathan Garcia, USA, 1:07.40 <br>10. Joey Mantia, USA, 1:07.63 <br>12. Shani Davis, USA, 1:07.67 <br>Women’s 3,000-meter final <br>1. Natalia Voronina, Russia, 3:57.70 <br>2. Martina Sablikova, Czech Republic, 3:57.84 <br>3. Claudia Pechstein, Germany, 3:58.69<br> 12. Mia Manganello, USA, 4:05.27 <br>14. Carlijn Schoutens, USA, 4:05.54

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