There was a meltdown at the oval by American speedskaters.
Three hundred yards across Olympic Park on a foggy Sunday night, American ice dancers had a ball.
At one venue, befuddlement.
At the other, contentment.
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At speedskating, resignation with the failure to win any medals.
At figure skating, anticipation of gold.
At a Winter Games that have not gone as the U.S. Olympic team planned so far, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are a true shoe-in. After fox-trotting nimbly through the short program, they have one foot in the door and one on the podium.
But speedskating has been a calamity. Worse, no one can pinpoint why.
Compare the U.S. team to a freighter and speedskating is the engine. More medals have been won by speedskaters — 67 — than by athletes in any other sport in U.S. Winter Olympic history. That glorious total may very well remain stagnant when the Sochi Games conclude.
With 24 of 36 medals already collected, the United States has won zero. Heather Richardson placed seventh in the 1,500-meter race Sunday. Brittany Bowe, the former Florida Atlantic University point guard from Ocala, placed 14th. Their teammate, Jilleanne Rookard, was 18th. Dutch skaters swept the first four spots.
Somewhere, Bonnie Blair is not smiling. Not a single medal in the sport that gave us workhorse Eric Heiden and heroic Dan Jansen? Nothing higher than two seventh places?
It is tempting to blame the aeronautically designed racing suits that were too brand new. The Olympics is no time to try out experimental apparel, even if it was wind-tunnel tested by Lockheed and Under Armour.
“A skater does not lose a second because of a skinsuit,” U.S. coach Kip Carpenter said, refusing to make excuses. “The Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us.”
It is tempting to blame the sea-level ice of Sochi, which is slower than the ice U.S. athletes train on at altitude in Kearns, Utah. But they have known for seven years they would be racing on “work ice” rather than “glide ice.” They compete in Europe every season. Many competed in Vancouver four years ago.
Effort was not the problem. Athletes tried their best. It just wasn’t good enough. Not even close. They didn’t live up to the world rankings and records they possess. What agony — to train so hard and skate below expectations at the Olympics.
“There were too many factors,” Shani Davis said, searching for a reason for his eighth- and 11th-place finishes and citing “distractions.” “The energy was really bad.”
Did they train too hard? Did they taper too early? Why were the Dutch so much faster? Coaches must examine the practice programs they created and figure out why athletes did not peak here. Recall that Miami’s Jennifer Rodriguez had disappointing performances in 2006 because she overtrained and didn’t realize it until her legs told her so in Torino, Italy.
The lack of podium presence is especially sad for speedskaters, who dedicate themselves to a grueling sport of pain tolerance, little recognition and low financial rewards for the fleeting quadrennial moment when people pay attention.
Given the turnover on the team and its inexperience in key spots, the United States was not expected to be as productive as it was in the past three Olympics, when it won 19 medals, seven of them gold. But a shutout is a shock; that has only happened in 1984 and 1956. They still have a shot in team pursuit and two distance events — a long shot.
At the Iceberg Skating Palace, Davis and White are as sure a bet as you can find in any sport contested on ice. They have a 2.56-point lead over Canada’s defending gold medalists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, going into Monday’s long program. Mistakes are rare in ice dancing, which is a discipline of synchronicity and flair. Lifts sub for jumps as the most difficult elements.
It’s not as preordained as it used to be, when judges manipulated marks to ensure a particular world order or made backroom deals to prop up their country’s skaters.
But Davis and White — unlike the U.S. speedskaters — look like they are hitting their Olympic peak. They skated to I Could Have Danced All Night, and they could have. He wore tails, she a pink dress, and their twizzles and Finnsteps were in perfect rhythm with each other.
“It felt light and easy, like we were just enjoying skating with each other, and I think that’s what came across,” White said.
Davis and White, the defending world champs, face even greater expectations than the speedskaters. They are supposed to give the united States its first Olympic figure skating gold in an event other than singles. Their Canadian rivals — who are also their training partners in Canton, Mich. — are breathing down their necks. The two couples have dominated dance for five years.
Davis and White should win the first U.S. gold medal outside Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, where American snowboarders and freestyle skiers have won four. Andrew Weibrecht grabbed silver and Bode Miller tied for bronze in super giant slalom Sunday, but Miller had appeared primed for at least one gold.
So did U.S. speedskaters.
So have other U.S. athletes who have bombed out in the first week.
A big part of being an Olympian is conquering Olympic pressure. An Olympian’s timing has to be impeccable, because “wait ’til next time” means waiting four years.