Speedskating might not be the United States' biggest strength, but it's hard to believe anyone stateside expected the struggles that have befallen the men's and women's side thus far in Sochi.
Through five events (three men, two women), the United States has exactly zero medals. It has exactly four top-10 finishes, none higher than eighth place. It's been little short of a calamity. Superstars are flailing. Supposed rising stars are crashing and burning.
Shani Davis being unable to capture his third-straight gold medal in the 1,000 meters is understandable. You know, with it never have been done before and all. But Davis floundering to an eighth-place finish and looking far up the leaderboard is another entirely. Coming in as the leader of the U.S.' speedskating charge and finally taking a leadership role, his faltering feels like a missed opportunity.
Then again, there may only be one country satisfied with its speedskating performance thus far.
The ice has almost entirely belonged to the Netherlands—especially on the men's side. The Dutch swept the podium in the men's 5,000 meters and 500 meters, a display of dominance on distances long and short that have set the entire tone in Russia. They were unable to complete a third-straight sweep of the men's events on Wednesday, but it hardly put a crack in the armor.
Canadian Denny Morrison earned a silver medal, but he was sandwiched between surprise gold medalist Stefan Groothuis and 500-meter champion Michel Mulder. The ladies' Olympic jewelry has been spread out a little better in their two events thus far, but Ireen Wust gave the Dutch another gold in the 3,000 meters.
Heading into Day 6, all 10 of the Netherlands' medals in Sochi have come in speedskating.
"I could see my split time, and I knew it wasn't good enough but I still fought hard," Davis said of his 1,000-meter run, per USA Today's . "It just wasn't there today. Obviously they're (the Dutch) doing something right, and it's up to us to figure it out."
That something is what the United States will desperately parse film for in the coming days. Viewed as being on par or just a slight step down from the Netherlands coming into these games, the Americans have taken a disappointing step backward. There are five more medal events before the team pursuit competition, which typically provides a thrilling capper to the speedskating festivities every four years.
The United States men won the silver in Vancouver and are expected to compete again. The women haven't fared quite as well but were an underrated contender to eek out a bronze. Whether that's possible anymore is unclear. But either way, the United States is in desperate need of momentum before next weekend.
Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe are expected to compete for gold in Thursday's 1,000 meters, but neither looked sterling in the 500 meters. Richardson, selected as a bronze-medal favorite by the Associated Press, finished eighth and Bowe 13th.
Both are better in the middle distances by rule. Richardson, like Davis had a day prior, seemed to be using the 500 as merely a tune-up event.
“It’s a good warm-up for the 1,000,” Richardson said, per Jeff Mills of the News-Record. “I just want to go into it as calm as possible, just think of it as another 1,000 to do.”
Bowe has even more of a preference for the longer distances, as she'll be a medal contender in both the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. While the 25-year-old Floridian has a bronze medal in Vancouver to her name, Davis' struggles taught everyone the fallacy of expected excellence. It only takes the slightest mistake or initial misstep to take a gold-medal run and make it an eighth-place finish.
Davis' chance at Olympic gold isn't over, either. He will have a two-day break for returning to the ice for the 1,500 meters, an event that has vexed his Olympic career. Despite being the world-record holder, Davis has fallen just short of gold in Vancouver and Turin to take silver. Even before his disappointing finish in the 1,000, Davis seemed to indicate the 1,500 might have been taking precedence this time around, per of the Journal Sentinel.
"Gold would be the big dream come true in the 1,500 meters race," Davis said. "I love that race so much because when I was a junior it was the first junior world race I won. I got my first international prize money and my first international ranking in the 1,500."
That sounds promising, but very few expected Davis to do anything other than earn gold on Wednesday. At age 31, perhaps he shouldn't be looked upon to carry a country's hopes. He, Richardson and Bowe were viewed as the buoys of United States speedskating, keeping its reputation afloat.
What if others, specifically the Netherlands, just are one step ahead at this point?
It's ultimately too soon to cast aspersions but still fair to worry. The U.S. was projected to medal in three of the five remaining events. That's quite a bit better than most countries. But the disappointments early in Sochi leave open the possibility the United States leaves empty-handed.
Then it will be time for a real examination of how to fix the problems. Whatever they may be.
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