For the sixth day in a row, U.S. speedskaters left the Adler Arena empty-handed, brokenhearted and raising questions about their new high-tech suits as they failed to reach the Olympic medal podium despite being heavy favorites in the women’s 1,000-meter event.
The latest shocker was world-record holder Brittany Bowe, the former Florida Atlantic University point guard-turned-speedskater, who finished eighth on Thursday. The Ocala, Fla., native was one spot behind teammate Heather Richardson and 1.45 seconds slower than Chinese gold medalist Hong Zhang – a considerable gap in a sport often decided by hundredths of seconds. The Dutch – Ireen Wust and Margot Boer – took silver and bronze.
It was very similar to what happened a day earlier in the men’s 1,000, when world record-holder and back-to-back gold medalist Shani Davis of the United States wound up eighth place in his signature event.
Bowe and Richardson had finished 1-2 in three of the past four World Cup races and had hopes of winning gold and silver medals here. Instead, Team USA is left without a single speedskating medal through six events. By comparison, U.S. skaters won 11 total medals in those same events in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics – six golds, one silver, four bronzes.
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“It’s definitely not something we expected,” said U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “Always at the Olympics the competition is fierce, but when you’re No. 1 and No. 2 coming in and finish seventh and eighth that’s not a good place to be sitting.
“Obviously I’m disappointed. I’m upset. But I’m proud of the girls because they gave everything they had but it’s frustrating, to say the least. We came in with a lot of momentum and to be skunked so far is not fun.”
GOTTA BE THE SUITS?
Shimabukuro was asked by U.S. and Dutch reporters about possible flaws in the new suits, and whether adjustments will be made. It has been reported in the Dutch media that their team tested similar suits and opted to discard them.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” he said. “Under Armour has been a great partner for us. I’m not going to speculate at this time. We’re obviously trying to evaluate the variables that could be there, but nothing I’m going to go on record with.”
The revolutionary “Mach 39” skin suits were years in the making and involved top-secret engineering from sportswear company Under Armour and Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense company. It was billed as “The Fastest Speedskating Suit in the World” and the project was cloaked in so much secrecy that U.S. skaters were not allowed to wear the suits at the Olympic trials or any other recent races. The suits were tested in wind-tunnels, but made their debut at these Olympics.
They feature a dimpled, rather than smooth, surface, meant to reduce drag. The polyurethane indentations are similar to those of a golf ball and are built into the forearms, lower legs and head of the suits. They also have a diagonal zipper across the chest, which is supposed to make the suit more comfortable under the skaters’ chins. And, an open mesh panel on the back to let heat out.
Richardson said they put rubber over the mesh panel before Thursday’s race, but she doesn’t feel that was a factor in the race. Elite skaters are always looking for any marginal edge, and these suits were made to shave hundredths of seconds off the skaters’ times.
A recent Washington Post story quoted Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation, as saying: “We are confident based on the actual suit testing that the medal count in Sochi will speak for itself.”
Halfway through the Olympics, the medal count says something is wrong with Team USA.
‘ICE IS THE SAME FOR EVERYONE’
Shimabukuro said the sub-par performances cannot be blamed on the ice. “The ice is the same for everyone.”
He refused to blame the decision to train at altitude in Salt Lake City, where the ice is faster, gives skaters more glide and doesn’t require as much push. Bowe set her world record of 1:12.58 in Salt Lake City on Nov. 17, 2013. She had a fast opening lap Thursday, but lost speed as the race wore on.
“The team has produced on sea level tracks, altitude tracks all over the world this year,” the coach said. “We had the same setup going into Torino [in 2006] and had a lot of success there. It’s unfortunate but for whatever reason, we’re getting skunked.”
Neither Bowe nor Richardson chose to sulk or blame equipment or conditions.
“I don’t think anything went wrong,” Bowe said. “There are hundreds of variables that go into this and to try and pinpoint one or two things is impossible. It’s about being able to perform when it counts and this is when it counts. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the results we wanted.
“I think the top three girls laid down some really fast times and deserve 1-2-3 with the performances they put out there. I thought I was on a really good one. It was a really fast opener for me, really solid first lap. I was trying to hang on that last lap but lost quite a bit of time. When I looked up at the board, I thought it would be a faster time. Immediately I was pretty disappointed, but you have to take it all in with perspective.”
Considering that she had never raced on ice skates as of four years ago, she said she is thrilled to be here, and plans to spend Friday celebrating her Olympic experience in the Athletes Village with her father Mike, mother Deborah and sister Brooke. Her father is the boys’ basketball coach at Eustis High School in Ocala and coached his team in the District Championship last Friday – the day of the Olympic Opening Ceremony – and then flew here the next day.
ECLECTIC ATHLETIC HISTORY
Bowe has been a jock since she could walk. She did basketball dribbling exhibitions at halftime of local games when she was 3 years old. By age 13, she was playing basketball, winning medals at in-line roller skating and also playing on a U13 boys’ soccer team.
She played basketball at Trinity Catholic High School, and earned a scholarship to FAU, where she struggled with turnovers as a freshman but wound up as the starting point guard. She played there from 2006-2010. She is No. 8 on the Owls’ all-time scoring list, No. 4 in assists and No. 9 in steals.
In February 2010, Bowe watched the Vancouver Olympics and saw that some of her former inline roller skating competitors and friends had switched to speedskating on ice. She was intrigued, and decided to follow in the skate steps of KC Boutiette, Miami’s Jennifer Rodriguez, Derek Patta, Chad Hedrick and Richardson.
She moved to Salt Lake City, and joined Parra’s Wheels to Ice training program. Her big breakthrough came at a World Cup in Germany in 2013, when she won the 1,000.
Chancellor Dugan, Bowe’s former basketball coach at FAU, has been rooting her on every step of the way. She is now coaching at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. On Thursday morning, she and assistant coach Shannon Litton (who also was at FAU) put on their “Bowe-Lieve” T-shirts and watched Brittany’s race live.
“I know how much she hates to lose, but I was so proud of her just being there,” said Dugan, reached by phone. “Three and a half years ago, she was learning how to skate and now she has the world record. That is what separates the regular athlete from the Olympic athlete. She has amazing speed, but more important she has that singular focus, that ‘It’ factor you just can’t teach.”
She remembered one day in particular, when the team was on a three-mile run around campus in a torrential downpour. “Most of the girls slowed down, but Brittany and one other girl were killing it, going full speed in the driving rain. I knew then she was special.”