KEARNS, Utah – Brittany Bowe feels flickers of the way she used to skate, her strength coming back bit by bit.
She was about as pleased as anyone could be after placing sixth in the women’s 1,000-meter at the long track speedskating world cup Sunday – a race she won here two years ago – and then watching her world record fall to Japanese skater Nao Kodaira.
“I felt relatively strong,” said Bowe, whose finish was the best among the U.S. women at this world cup. “I think each race this weekend has gotten a little bit better. Obviously that one breaks my heart, having the world record broken, but worrying about things that I can control myself, I am pretty happy with that race.”
For more than 16 months, Bowe has been affected by things she can’t control.
In July 2016, she collided with a teammate in training, hitting her head on the ice and suffering a concussion that eventually forced her to cut the season short. Bowe has worked her way back from vestibular dysfunction, post-concussion syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which made her feel faint and dizzy.
Returning to the world cup circuit in Heerenveen, Netherlands, in November, Bowe won the B division races in the 500 and 1,000. In Stavanger, Norway, she was promoted to the A division, where her best finishes were fourth in a 500 and fifth in the 1,000.
But Bowe couldn’t catch a break. “When I came back home from Norway, I came down with walking pneumonia,” she said.
Bowe had to miss the world cup in Calgary, Alberta, Dec. 1-3.
Then it was time to test herself on her home ice, which had been so good to her in the past. In 2015, Bowe won gold in the 1,000, silver in the 1,500 and a silver and bronze in the 500s at the Salt Lake City World Cup. Two years before that, in 2013, she won gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500.
But without the same preparation, Bowe measured her progress differently.
On Friday, the first day of the three-day world cup at the Utah Olympic Oval, Bowe was 13th in the 500 with a time of 37.69, her best time on the world cup circuit this season.
“It hasn’t been an easy 2 ½ weeks, but I’m getting back in the swing of things,” said the 29-year-old Floridian who switched from inline skating to ice in 2010. “I’m definitely recovered, but as you know recovering from an illness not trying to play a top sport is hard enough, so it’s going to take a little bit to get the body and the strength back.”
A day later, she was encouraged by another 13th-place finish in the 1,500. Her time of 1 minute, 55.49 seconds was her best in almost two years.
“Obviously the legs just aren’t there yet, but I think I could take a lot of positives from it,” Bowe said. “I think my strengths are just being strong and having that easy speed that unfortunately isn’t coming for me right now. We’ve got two more months and I’m confident that if I can have two solid months without any more obstacles, that we’ll be right where we want to be.”
Bowe should have no problem qualifying for Team USA at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in Milwaukee in January. The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 start in February.
“There’s always some technical things to improve on and it’s clear that the speed’s not coming as easy as it has in the past,” Bowe said, “and that’s just getting little bit more training, a few more repetitions. Two months can either sound like a lot of time, or in this case a little bit of time, but I’m just going to make every single day count.”
She flirted with the podium on Sunday in the 1,000, posting a time of 1:13.55, also a season best, to take the lead after seven pairs in the fourth and final pre-Olympic world cup.
“My skating felt better,” Bowe said. “The timing felt better. I felt like I was connecting and I definitely felt stronger than I have so far this year.”
But with three pairs to go, Bowe saw other skaters eclipse her, including Kodaira, whose 1:12.09 sliced .09 off Bowe’s record set here in November 2015.
“You can look at it from two different ways,” said Bowe, a four-time world champion and grand world cup champion in 2016. “If you start off strong, you have a lot of confidence. This whole Japanese team, they’re going into the Olympics really confident and that’s how we were going into the last Games (where Team USA won no medals in long track speedskating) so it’s a double-edged sword there.
“I’m just continuing to stick to the process and each race is getting better, so hopefully we’re on that upward trend.”
Matt Kooreman, the national team sprint coach, is content to see Bowe improve in “little chunks.”
“I think with two month’s time, we have enough time where we have a legitimate shot at being where we want to be at the Olympics,” he said.
Bowe is reminded of where she has been and where she needs to go at home as well as on the ice.
Her doctor told her to print photographs of herself as world champion and world-record holder and put them where she can see them every day.
“I have those hanging just to have that positive affirmation to look at,” Bowe said, “and I hear from my coaches, my family, my friends. All that positivity is contagious, so I just try to consume myself with that.”
For the past few years, Bowe and teammate Heather Bergsma have been the strongest U.S. Olympic long track speedskating contenders.
Bergsma, who won the 1,000 in Calgary last week, opted to skip this world cup and go home to the Netherlands to train with her pro team coach before the trials.
In Bergma’s absence and with Joey Mantia, who won a silver medal in Stavanger in the 1,500, feeling under the weather, Team USA won no medals at this world cup.
The top men’s performance Sunday was Jonathan Garcia’s seventh place in the 1,000, with Mantia 10th and Shani Davis 12th. Mantia was fourth in the 1,500 on Saturday.
“Obviously, you’d like to have some Americans on the podium and defend what we’ve done the past few years here,” Bowe said. “But the goal is February. It’s awesome to race here on home soil, but the big prize comes in South Korea.”