Americans fall flat in speedskating despite suit change

The U.S. speedskating team, soul-searching and desperate to recover from what has been a disastrous Olympics, ditched its much-hyped high-tech suits and reverted to familiar proven attire for Saturday’s 1,500 meters race.

World-class athletes are creatures of habit, and this was one variable they could control, they figured. So, they voted during a Friday night meeting to discard the suits that were years in the making and specially designed by Under Armour and engineers at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Skaters had begun to second-guess the suits, which had never been tested in race conditions before this Olympics began.

Turns out, the wardrobe change made no difference.

In fact, the Americans did worse than they had in previous days. Shani Davis, who owns the world record in the event and won the past two Olympic silver medals, finished 11th. His teammate Brian Hansen was four spots ahead in seventh place.

For the seventh time this Olympics, U.S. skaters left Adler Arena without any medals. They are 0-for-21 in possible medals and have no top-six finishes. They won 19 medals in the past three Olympics, were expected to win at least a half dozen medals here, and are in danger of being shut out for the first time since the 1984 Sarajevo Games.

“There is absolutely something wrong across the board; the US is underperforming compared to where we could be,’’ Hansen said. “Statistically, that’s a fact.’’

Zbigniew Brodka of Poland took gold in 1:45.006, Koen Verweij of the Netherlands silver in 1:45.009 and Denny Morrison of Canada bronze in 1:45.22.

Neither Davis nor Hansen blamed the suit directly for the U.S. woes, but both suggested the fuss and controversy surrounding the suit was a distraction.

Instead of relaxing and focusing on their upcoming race Friday night, they were debating about what to wear. By the time the decision was made to dump the suits, the damage was done, Davis said.

Tennis players don’t test new rackets at the Wimbledon final. Cyclists don’t test a new bike at the Tour de France. And speedskaters prefer not to unveil new suits at the Olympics.

“The distractions took a toll on me,’’ Davis said. “There were a lot of things going on around me out of my control that could possibly have affected the things I did have in my control…the energy was really bad. I really try hard to not make excuses, but I think if we could eliminate all those distractions and I could have just put that energy into performing and skating, it would have been a totally different outcome.’’

His shocking eighth-place finish in the 1,000 rocked his confidence.

“Coming across the line eighth after having one of the best openers of my life not being able to find the speed, it plays with me in my head,’’ he said. “It makes me question some of the things I’ve done leading up to these races. It was really hard for me to build myself up and go out there and think I’m the world’s fastest skater and in reality I am coming across the line eighth.

The suit whispers began after the men’s 1,000, and got louder after the women’s 1,000. Heather Richardson and Brittney Bowe, the 1,000-meter world record holder and former Florida Atlantic University basketball player, were both favored to make the podium. They finished seventh and eighth.

“Things kind of blew up,’’ Hansen said. “[Friday night] I think it got a little crazy too. It was a little tough for me to focus on what I was doing. Not that the skin was a big deal, it was more the worries about everything going on around the skin -- the coaches, the media, Under Armour.’’

Davis felt the team should have raced in the suits before the Olympics. They were kept under wraps because team officials didn’t want any other nations to copy their design.

“I think in any scenario you want to try something out before you try it out on one of the bigger stages of your life,’’ Davis said. “I’d much rather try it out, if I had the option, way before the Olympics. The Olympics happens once every four years.’’

Hansen agreed. He said psychologically, it helps to know going into a race that he has reached the podium in a particular suit and pair of skates. He felt he was within striking distance Saturday, whereas the 1,000 remains “a mystery’’ to him.

“The main thing is that I have confidence with this skin suit that I know I finished top three with it,’’ he said. “The other skin suit still may be the fastest skin suit in the world. Part of the problem is that we haven’t had the chance to race in it and have the results to know that it’s the fastest skin suit in the world, for us personally.’’

But U.S. coach Kip Carpenter dispelled the suggestion that the suits were to blame for the team’s poor performances.

“A skater does not lose a second [in the 1,000] because of a skinsuit,’’ he said after training Friday. “Anyone who thinks that does not know speed skating. In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us.’’

Olympic legend Dan Jansen, working as an NBC commentator, told the Milwaukee Journal that U.S. skaters may be struggling because they trained on very fast ice at altitude in Salt Lake City and then spent 10 days at altitude at Collabo, Italy to get an aerobic boost, rather than preparing at sea level. The Sochi arena is a few blocks from the pebbled beaches of the Black Sea, temperatures have been in the mid-60s, and skaters are competing on “working ice,’’ which means it has less glide than the Salt Lake City ice.

Whatever the reason, Davis is extremely disappointed in his results.

“At the end of the day, the paper says I’m eleventh. The paper says I’m eighth. It doesn’t say ‘because of suit’ or because of lack of confidence. It just says eighth and eleventh, so that’s what I have to live with for the rest of my life knowing that I had the potential, I had the talent, I did the work, made the sacrifices but I couldn’t quite get what I needed to get out of those things in Sochi.’’

For much of his career, the 31-year-old Chicago native had a reputation as being prickly and bitter that he was a bigger star in the Netherlands than his home country. But his image improved in the leadup to these Games, he got big-time sponsors, and had a huge following. That, Davis said, makes his performance here particularly painful.

“It kills me inside to know that the attention I’m getting now, these are the things I always wanted since 2002. I wanted to be a speedskater that the Americans knew, loved, followed, and cheered for. I had the whole country behind me, but I come away with nothing to give back to them and say thank you for believing in me.’’

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