SOCHI, Russia — When it comes to speedskating at the 2014 Winter Games, the Netherlands can’t miss the podium and the U.S. can’t even get close.
Led by short track skater Jorien ter Mors, who was ranked the lowest of the Netherlands' four competitors, the Dutch country finished one through four in the women's 1,500 meters Sunday. Ter Mors skated in an early pairing and set an Olympic record with a time of 1:53.51. Then she watched as the rest of the world’s elite skaters tried to catch her.
“I’m not suited to these kinds of situations,” she said after leading the podium sweep. “In short track, you immediately know if you have won. Now I had to wait and it was very nerve-wracking. I never expected to win gold here in long track, but I had a very good race.”
She was joined on the podium by Ireen Wust, who earned silver with a time of 1:54.09, and Lotte van Beek, who earned bronze by crossing the finish line in 1:54.54.
The three medals they earned Sunday bring the Netherland's total in speedskating alone to 16 — a feat no other country has accomplished in any sport at the Winter Games.
“They’re on fire right now,” said U.S. long track coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “They have all the momentum going in their direction. They’ve had it for several days now. That’s the thing about the Olympic Games — it’s infectious. “My hats off to them. Jorien went out and laid down an intimidating time.”
On the other hand, the U.S. can’t figure out how to right what was once a successful ship. And now the team stands perilously close to leaving without a single medal — something that hasn't happened since 1984.
“It’s really surprising since we’ve all been on the podium this season,” said Heather Richardson, who was the top U.S. finisher at 1:57.60. “It’s a little disappointing, but we went out there and gave it the best that we could, and that’s all we can do.”
A disheartening situation for American speedskaters turned into controversy last week after two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis failed to even earn a podium spot in the race he’s dominated. There has been speculation about the high-tech Mach 39 skin suits designed by Lockheed Martin and Under Armour, the pre-Olympic camp the U.S. held at high altitude instead of sea level, and even the support offered to skaters by U.S. Speedskating.
“I think they try their best,” Richardson said about the support of the organization that governs American skaters. “They want to see us succeed.”
Each skater questioned about the problems has taken responsibility for his or her finish.
“For me, mentally, I just needed to be stronger. Just like today, I was able to have fun and I can actually say I’m happy with that performance.”
She did not feel like she gave her best effort in the 1,000 meters — a race she won three of four times on the World Cup circuit.
“I went home and cried forever about the 1,000, but I have to let go at some point, and just focus on the rest of my races. And that’s what I tried to do.”
Richardson said she's had an easier time staying positive as she’s roommates with Florida native Brittany Bowe, and they have a close friendship.
Bowe said the race was every bit as tough as she imagined it would be.
“Everybody knew it was going to be a tough race going out there,” said Bowe, who finished in 14th place with a time of 1:58.31. “And it was. I didn’t really hit the lap times I wanted to and I didn’t really get up to speed the way I should. It was a tough race, and I gave it my all, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Richardson’s fiance is member of the Dutch Olympic team, and she said she made an inquiry.
“I asked my finance what the secret was, and he doesn’t have one,” she laughed. “I know it’s so competitive there just to be on a sponsored team so they're constantly battling and having so many top skaters to fill in the spot if no one is there. I think that’s an advantage there.”
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