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U.S. Long Track Speedskaters Ready To Rebound

By Karen Rosen | Nov. 14, 2014, 1:31 a.m. (ET)

Shani Davis competes in the men's 1,500-meter at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Adler Arena Skating Center on Feb. 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Brittany Bowe competes in the women's 500-meter at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Far from being stuck in a rut, the U.S. long track speedskating team is taking a clean slate into the new season.

After Team USA was shockingly shut out of the medals at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the goal of the fall world cup team is to peak at the right time.

While Team USA athletes — including Shani Davis, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe — were podium performers on the world cup circuit ahead of the Winter Games and immediately after, they struggled on the Sochi ice.

Controversy raged over new high-tech suits and the team’s pre-Games training camp location (which was at altitude while Sochi is at sea level). No individual U.S. athlete placed higher than seventh.

“My philosophy taking over these guys from last year was essentially just to build on what they’ve done before,” said Matt Kooreman, the new long track national sprint team head coach who came over from his coaching job at the Utah Olympic Oval. “We’re just trying to tweak some of those things that we’ve done in the past and make sure the timing is correct, that we’re skating fast when we need to be.

“We’ve been looking at the program a little closer to make sure we’re at our best in February and not necessarily at our best in November and December.”

The ISU World Cup season opens Nov. 14-16 in Obihiro, Japan, with the 2014 campaign continuing in Seoul, Berlin and Heerenveen, Netherlands. After more U.S. trials in early January in Milwaukee, the world cup schedule resumes in Hamar, Norway, on Jan. 31. It then returns to Heerenveen for another world cup as well as the marquee event: the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships from Feb. 12-15.

Change Is Good

Kooreman said the U.S. fall world cup team, named after trials in Kearns, Utah, in late October, has embraced the need for change in training programs as well as technique. Many team members competed in Sochi.

“I think people are owning their performance and looking to find ways that they can do things better,” Kooreman said. “What I didn’t want to see happen was, ‘Well, we would have won if it was the suit or we would have won if we did a different training camp.’ They’re not blaming everyone, but are looking at what we can control now to improve and make sure we’re good at the right time.”

Shani’s Back

Now 32 years old, Davis is on his skates for what he hopes will be more victory laps. He accomplished his fifth straight “Davis Double” by winning the 1,000 and 1,500 at the fall trials.

“He looked really strong and really technically efficient,” Kooreman said.

Going into Sochi, Davis was riding a surge of popularity unlike any he’d had before. Yet he was devastated by his performances at his fourth Winter Games. Davis placed eighth in the 1,000-meter, where he was two-time defending Olympic champion, and 11th in the 1,500, a race in which he has two silver medals. Davis is still the world record holder in both events.

“It was really hard trying to move forward at first and not let what happened in Sochi bring me down or possibly even halt my skating career,” he told his website, ShaniDavis.org. “Of course I'm not completely healed and may never be, but I do believe going through the hardship of not being successful in Sochi ultimately strengthens me in all areas of life and it certainly makes me have a deeper appreciation for the success I had in the past.”

Now Davis is chasing the men’s record for most career world cup wins. Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada leads the list with 67, while Davis has 58 (40 in the 1,000 and 18 in the 1,500). Bonnie Blair has the most world cup wins by a U.S. speedskater with 69, while Germany’s Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann holds the all-time record with 98 victories.

Davis won five world cup races last season, but admits he has to contend with that old rival, Father Time, who is “ultimately undefeated,” as well as skaters from around the world.

Over the summer, he went back to work with his short-track coach from the 2009-10 season and said he found it “really energizing… My body and mind were refreshed, recharged, and challenged training with his system. My mindset is also different since it's the beginning of another possible four-year Olympics cycle, so it's nice to be starting fresh.”

However, Davis is not promising he will make it all the way to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, saying that “2018 is so far away and a lot can happen between now and then. I'll take it year by year and pay close attention to my body and mind and hopefully there will still be fuel left in the tank so we can finish our skating legacy as strong as possible.”

Heather Richardson celebrates on the medals podium after winning the women's 500-meter during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 28, 2013 in Kearns, Utah.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

U.S. sprint ace Heather Richardson is now training with the Dutch, who won a whopping 23 of the 36 potential long track medals in Sochi.

Actually, Richardson headed for the Netherlands to be with her fiancé, Jorrit Bergsma, who won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter in Sochi, leading a Dutch sweep in the event.

Kooreman said Richardson, the 2013 sprint world champion, told him the training in the Netherlands has been an adjustment. “They do a lot more cycling over there and they don’t do weights as much as we do over here,” he said.”So certainly it’s a little bit of a different philosophy, so I’ll be curious to see how her results pan out over the course of the year.”

So, How Do You Beat The Dutch?

“A lot of people are asking that question right now,” Kooreman said. “The thing is, we’ve beaten them before. Quite frankly, I don’t look at them as this giant that can’t be taken down. Obviously they have a crop of talented skaters and talented coaches, but they’re certainly beatable in my mind. A lot of it is just about improving: Do the little things in performance and training and equipment, and it all adds up to the tenth that we need to be on top.”

Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, summed up the overall Sochi performance when he said, “If you look at the speedskating results, we weren’t the only nation that got smoked by the Netherlands.”

The only down side to Richardson’s new home is that Bowe lost her training partner.

Late Momentum

Team USA managed to finish last season on a high note. Davis, Richardson and Brian Hansen (who is taking this year off) won events at the world cup at Inzell, Germany, March 7-9 as the U.S. racked up a phenomenal eight podium finishes. Davis then placed second in the final world cup in Heerenveen a week later.

As the weather grew cool again, U.S. athletes attained 13 personal bests during the three-day Long Track Fall World Cup Qualifier, which were also the U.S. Single Distance Championships. After all, the Utah Olympic Oval is known as the “Fastest Ice on Earth.”

Among The Highlights

Bowe and Richardson skated the two fastest 500s in the world this season and Davis had the fastest 1,000. Bowe, the world record holder in the 1,000 at 1 minute, 12.58 seconds, skated 1:12.91 at the trials. 

Jeffrey Swider-Peltz earned his first world cup team berth, following in the skates of his mother (three-time Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz) and sister (2010 Olympian Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr.). Paige Schwartzburg also proved that she belonged at the elite level.

“It was good to see both of them that have been around the last few years starting to break through,” Kooreman said. 

Joey Mantia competes in the men's 1,000-meter at the Essent ISU World Cup on Dec. 7, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.

Among the veterans, coach Kooreman said Joey Mantia is “really starting to come on strong. I think he’s narrowed in on what he needs to do technically, and I would anticipate he’s going to be a little more consistent than he was last year and get a few more podium finishes. Mitch Whitmore has been really close to a podium finish before — he was fourth in Salt Lake at the world cup last year — but I think we’re on track to shave a tenth or two off that 500-meter time and finally get him on the podium.”

New Coaches

US Speedskating made several personnel moves amid the Sochi fallout. Kooreman replaced Ryan Shimabukuro, who stepped down as a coach after 16 years. Tom Cushman, a US Speedskating coach from 2000-06, succeeded Kip Carpenter as national allround coach. Guy Thibault is the new high-performance director, taking over from Finn Halvorsen after the speedskating program, which won more medals than any other U.S. winter sport, missed the long track podium for the first time since 1984.

Three-time Olympian Tucker Fredricks retired, but took Kooreman’s old job coaching at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Old Suits

Team USA ditched the Under Armour Mach 39 high-tech suits, which the athletes had not worn prior to the Winter Games, partway through the competition in Sochi.

They went back to their world cup suits, also made by Under Armour, but were unable to match their world cup results.

Kooreman said the suits this season are similar to last season’s attire.

He said more field testing is needed for the Mach 39 suits, which performed better in wind tunnel testing than on the track.

“We’re trying to make sure that the fit is absolutely perfect and that people are comfortable,” Kooreman said, “and then we’ll continue to test some of these other innovations as we develop suits going forward.”

Related Athletes

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Shani Davis

Long Track Speedskating
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Heather Bergsma

Long Track Speedskating
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Brittany Bowe

Long Track Speedskating
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Brian Hansen

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Joey Mantia

Long Track Speedskating
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Mitch Whitmore