Olympic speedskating is a fast-paced discipline that tests the body, mind and spirit of the contestants involved. It's not for the feint of heart, either, as there's never any shortage of crashes when the action heats up on the ice.
Every competitor who makes it to the Olympics brings an outstanding resume of success, but there is an elite group of racers who possess elite physical skills and unflappable mental toughness—the sport's biggest stars.
One such star, Meng Wang of China, who is a four-time gold-medal winner, will unfortunately miss the Games after suffering a serious ankle injury in January. Norman Li of China Radio International provides the bitter news:
Speedskating fans won't have to wait long after the opening ceremony to catch their first bit of action. One day later, on Feb. 8, the men's 5,000-meter race will kick off two weeks of Olympic speedskating competition at Adler Arena.
Now for a look at the top stars heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.
Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson, USA
Canada's Caroline Nesbitt was the darling of the 1,000-meter race in 2010, winning gold over a pair of skaters from the Netherlands. Her Olympic performance highlighted a five-year run of dominance on the women's track, as she won seven gold medals in World Cup competition between 2007-12.
However, Nesbitt has been bumped down the line by a couple of Americans the past year-plus. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe have emerged as the two top 1,000-meter skaters in the world, coming into Sochi at No. 1 and No. 2.
Bowe (No. 2) has the distinction of being the world-record holder at this distance—a fact she gleefully shared recently, via Twitter:
Richardson is the more steady of the two, however, and she has a better chance of earning multiple medals this winter in Sochi. The two women have learned to thrive off of the competition they offer one another, and a deep friendship has formed over the years.
“We have a really special relationship,” Bowe said, as relayed by the Associated Press, via the Washington Post. “We’re teammates, friends, competitors and roommates. It’s really special to have one of the fastest, if not the fastest, girl in the world on my team, working with me day in and day out. We’re really lucky to have each other.”
Look for this dynamic duo to bring home their fair share of medals.
Martina Sablikova, Czech Republic
Nobody has been more dominant in the long distances than Czech star Martina Sablikova, who recently won her sixth consecutive world title in the 5,000-meter race, as NBC's Amanda Doyle pointed out:
All told, Sablikova has collected 10 World Cup gold medals and four European Championships gold medals. After winning double gold in the 5,000- and 3,000-meter races at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, she was dubbed "The Queen of Skating" by IOC president Jacques Rogge.
The only opponent that has truly troubled Sablikova of late is her own health, as described by Reuters, via NBCOlympics.com: "Last year her back caused her problems while a groin injury was to blame for her last placed finish in the 1500m World Cup event in Salt Lake City in November."
However, her health has returned heading into the Olympics, and she'll once again be heavily favored to win the 5,000-meter race and make the podium in the 3,000-meter race.
Shani Davis, USA
Shani Davis will be the biggest star on the ice during the 2014 Winter Games.
The 31-year-old speedskating legend is a four-time Olympic medalist who has won the 1,000-meter race twice in a row (2006 and 2010) while earning a silver medal in the 1,500-meter race both times.
A three-peat isn't out of the question, either. And, if he accomplishes the feat, Davis will become the first man in the history of the Winter Games to "win three straight Olympic golds in any winter event," according to Wayne Drehs of ESPN.com.
Davis discussed what he's learned from his first two Olympics experiences, via Drehs:
I've learned a great amount -- how to prepare to be the best I can be, getting to the Olympics and being my best there, rather than being awesome in the beginning of the season and not being at my best at the Olympics.
This wealth of experience, along with a continued desire to be the best, will propel Davis to become an Olympic immortal when he wins the gold for a third straight time in the 1,000-meter race.
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