KEARNS, Utah – Racing all alone in men’s team pursuit, the United States chased down an Olympic berth Friday at the final pre-Games long track speedskating world cup.
“Going into this one was kind of like a ‘do or die,’” said Emery Lehman, who joined Brian Hansen and Joey Mantia in clinching the eighth and final spot available to countries.
Although Team USA finished fifth at the Utah Olympic Oval, its time of 3 minutes, 37.97 seconds was good enough to qualify the nation for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“That was a relief,” said Hansen, a two-time Olympian. “We were in a really tricky spot today, but we made it.”
The results won’t be official until the International Skating Union makes the announcement next week, but Team USA coach Tom Cushman said, “We’re in.”
The first six countries qualified based on world cup points, with the next two based on time.
Team USA has never failed to qualify in men’s team pursuit since the event was added to the Olympic program in 2006. Hansen was part of the team that won the silver medal in Vancouver in 2010, joining Chad Hedrick, Jonathan Kuck and Trevor Marsicano (who skated in an early round).
This world cup campaign, however, was not going well. Team USA was eighth in the Dutch city of Heerenveen in November, then was disqualified in Calgary, Alberta, a week ago when Lehman fell with a lap to go in what was shaping up to be a good performance.
With no hope of making it on points, Team USA needed to post a fast time.
“I was just trying to stay on my feet and finish it strong,” Lehman said. “I felt a lot of pressure beforehand. Mission accomplished.”
The Utah Olympic Oval, where the inner racing lane is inscribed “The Fastest Ice on Earth,” was the perfect setting.
With 11 teams entered, the three members of Team USA were the odd men out based on the ranking and the luck of the draw. They skated first and without another country starting on the opposite side of the track.
When the eight laps were over, they had posted the best time by a U.S. team since Hansen, Jonathan Kuck and Shani Davis set the American record of 3:37.22 four years ago on this same track in a silver-medal world cup finish.
Cushman said if Team USA had to skate by itself, this was the best place to do it. “We were in the United States and the crowd was going crazy,” he said. “They were really supportive. Had we been in another country, (skating alone) would have had more impact.”
“The cheering for sure helped,” Hansen added, “home crowd advantage and just racing here in Salt Lake was really nice.”
China and Russia skated next, both slower than Team USA.
Then it came down to Poland, which faced Canada in the next pairing. With Poland’s time 3:41.16, that propelled Team USA into the Games.
“They were really happy with it,” Cushman said, “but they all said, ‘We can do better,’ and I agree.”
Hansen said that even though Team USA finished fifth in a race won by Canada in 3:36.44, “We were only a second and a half off first so I think that shows something about where we’re at.”
Mantia, Hansen and Lehman, who have been skating as a team for the past two seasons, are likely to be the team representing the United States in PyeongChang, but the selection will be contingent on the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in Milwaukee next month.
“They skate really well together and they’re a really strong team,” Cushman said.
Lehman said he and his teammates didn’t discuss the stakes before the race. “We tried to relax a little bit, listened to music and I tried to take some deep breaths. Joey tries to calm us down because he knows it’s going to hurt a lot more for us than for him.”
Team USA also decided to tweak the order for this world cup.
Usually Hansen leads the first two laps, then Lehman leads two laps and Mantia takes over for the final four. This time, Lehman tucked in between Mantia and Hansen for the last four.
The strategy, Lehman said, was “if I get tired Brian can push me, and if I have something left in the tank I can push Joey.”
“That made all the difference in the world,” said Cushman, who added that the team skated a second faster than he thought they would.”
Lehman was surprised to get within shouting distance of the American record. “With Brian, Shani and Jonathan, that’s three amazing skaters right there,” he said. “We’ve got Joey and Brian and then you just throw me in there, so it’s pretty impressive that we can get that close, that they can drag me along that fast.”
The race Friday, which was part of three days of world cup competition, was also good practice for the Games, where the first round is a time trial.
“We just needed to get there,” Cushman said. “It basically starts all over again at the Olympic Games.”