PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Perhaps no team has more to prove at the Pyeongchang Olympics than the U.S. speedskaters.
Limited to one medal four years ago, they are eager to bounce back and show why their sport has produced the most medals for the U.S. in the Winter Games.
Going 0 for 12 in long track and 1 for 8 in short track in Sochi was a “disaster,” long track skater Mitch Whitmore said.
It’s certainly a memory the Americans haven’t forgotten, either.
“The thought is definitely in the back of my mind, you don’t want that to happen again,” Brittany Bowe said. “You just have to bring it back to, ‘Have I done everything I can to prepare myself the best way I can?’ I can answer that, yes.”
That’s quite a change from 2014, when the Americans debuted a high-tech skin suit they thought would lead to more gold, silver and bronze.
Instead, it was an unqualified failure. Skaters complained the suit was too tight and they were stuck dealing with sizing issues on the day of their races. To compound their woes, the Americans trained outdoors at altitude leading up to the games when the venue in Sochi was indoors at sea level.
“The team morale was really weird,” Joey Mantia said. “There was just a weird vibe in the village among our team.”
This time, things are completely different.
“Basically, our entire staff has handed us all the tools we need to get medals,” said Mantia, a favorite for gold in the mass start event. “It’s just up to us now. There’s no more blaming it on anyone else.”
Last year, the Americans traveled to the Gangneung Oval, where they will race this week, and measured ice temperature and thickness and air conditions. They took that information back home and used it to reproduce those conditions at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, where the long track Olympic trials and a pre-Olympic camp were held.
“We felt this was the best strategy to ensure we have peak performance at the right time,” said Shane Domer, sports science director for US Speedskating.
They will find out starting Saturday when long track begins with the women’s 3,000 meters. Short track starts with the men’s 1,500-meter final, along with qualifying in other events.
The U.S. team isn’t totally free of distraction, however.
Five-time Olympian Shani Davis tweeted that the process in which luger Erin Hamlin beat him out in a coin flip as the U.S. flag bearer for Friday’s opening ceremony was handled “dishonorably.” The final vote by their fellow athletes ended in a 4-4 tie, leading to the coin flip.
Davis’ tweet included a mention of Black History Month, raising the question of whether he thought race played a role in the decision. Davis is black, Hamlin is white.
Davis didn’t talk with reporters after practice Friday.
While attention was diverted by the tweet, the rest of the U.S. team practiced in skin suits made by Under Armour – the same company responsible for their suits in Sochi.
The polyurethane material is thinner and stretch was built in to allow freedom of movement in the shoulders. The sleeves and legs have slightly different material that helps air flow over the skaters’ arms and legs.
Four years ago, the material was thicker and the seam pattern didn’t allow for easy movement.
“We’re confident that these things perform well and these guys have done some amazing times in these suits, so we know they’re battle-tested as well,” Domer said. “It’s the fastest (suits) we’ve ever tested.”
Mentally, the Americans feel confident in the suits they’ve been wearing for over a year.
“Long track is a huge mental sport, if you believe in what you’re racing in, that’s a big step in the right direction,” Mantia said. “We’re all really happy with what the suits are and that’s not going to be a factor in these games.”
Short track skater J.R. Celski was on the 5,000 relay that earned a silver medal on the last night of competition in Sochi to prevent a shutout for the U.S. He’s back again, and so is Mantia, who initially re-evaluated whether he wanted to continue skating after the debacle.
“You let it simmer for a second and then move on,” Mantia said. “Everybody up here is a go-getter and we’re not going to let something like that stop any of us from going out there and trying again.”