PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Disaster. That’s the word they use for what happened — or rather, what didn’t happen — in Sochi four years ago. The US long-track speedskaters always had been a medal machine at the Winter Games, second only to the Dutch. They were penciled in for seven. They won zero. That hadn’t happened in three decades and it left the Americans shaken.
“The Olympics is interesting because it’s your entire life,” says Joey Mantia. “You work really, really hard and it’s determined by one or two races. It’s not like you can have a bad day at work and come back the next day and fix it all.”
Even before the racing began the Yanks knew something was off. “Between long-track and short-track there was a weird vibe in the Village among the team,” recalls Mantia. The new high-tech Under Armour skinsuits, which the skaters began using only a couple of weeks before the Games, were tight and heavy and didn’t stretch. To prepare for indoor racing at sea level, the team held its trials at altitude in Utah and its camp outdoors in the Italian mountains. They might as well have gone to Mars.
It didn’t take long inside the Olympic oval for the skaters to conclude that they were in for a failed fortnight. When the Games were done and the finger-pointing began a number of the Americans were asking themselves whether they’d want to put themselves through another quadrennium.
“It took me a long time to process what I wanted to do after Sochi but I knew that I wouldn’t have wanted to end it on those terms,” said Shani Davis, who finished eighth in the 1,000 meters after winning gold at the previous two Games. “So I still had the desire and passion to continue.”
Nearly half of the 2014 squad decided to stick around and take a shot at redemption in Asia with Davis competing in his fifth Games at 35. But this time the prep work was decidedly more practical. The suits still are made by Under Armour but they don’t feel like medieval armor.
“We’ve changed all of that,” says sprinter Mitch Whitmore, who’ll be racing in his third Games. “Our suit’s really light. It stretches, fits awesome, looks cool.”
This time the Olympic trials were staged at the Pettit Center in the Milwaukee suburbs, the traditional venue in the days of the Heidens and Blairs that had fallen out of favor since 1998. The two-week camp was held there, too.
“It seems like everything is taken care of,” says Mantia. “We have everything we need. Our staff has handed us all the tools that we need to get medals. It’s just up to us now. If we perform, we perform. If we don’t, we don’t, but there’s no more blaming it on anything else.”
Still, after their Sochi stumble the Americans are being conservative about their medal targets. The goal, Brittany Bowe says, is five. “We have performance meetings and I don’t know the algorithm but that came into my head,” she said. “We have a number on the board and I think we are more than capable, more than possible, to surpass that if we skate to the best of our ability.”
The reality is that in terms of podium possibilities this is a two-person team. Heather (Richardson) Bergsma, a double victor at last year’s world single-distance championships, is favored in Monday’s 1,500 and in the 1,000 and also should make the stand in the new mass start event. Mantia comes in as the global champ in the men’s mass start and has a strong medal shot in the 1,500.
For the Dutch, who invented the sport, five medals would represent a couple of days’ work. The Oranje won a truckload in 2014, taking eight of the 12 events and 23 medals in all and sweeping four events. It was, said their distance legend Bob de Jong, an embarrassment of riches.
“There were too many medals in Sochi for the Netherlands and I hope it never happens again,” said de Jong, who now coaches the South Koreans. “It was unbelievable how many medals we got and it’s not good for the sport. It’s good to get medals from all over the world.”
There’s ample room on the podium for the Yanks, the Japanese, the Canadians, the Russians and the Germans, too. But the Dutch aren’t going off the gold standard here. They won eight of the 14 events at the single-distance meet at the Olympic oval in Gangneung, including six of seven on the men’s side.
When the Americans last hosted the Games in 2002 in Salt Lake City and won eight medals they could go stride for stride with the Dutch. Now they’re amid the panting pack of pursuers. What they learned four years ago is that medal targets on a board have a way of vanishing when the gun goes off at Olympus. So how many medals are realistic this time? “More than zero,” reckoned Whitmore.John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.