The ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships begin Thursday in Gangneung, South Korea, marking not only an important championship event for 11 U.S. athletes but also an Olympic preview.
The competition at the Gangneung Oval is the official test event for next year’s PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, which begin almost exactly one year from now.
Here are five storylines to watch as U.S. athletes take the ice.
Skating Past The Medal Drought In Sochi
The Americans won eight long track speedskating medals at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and then followed that up with seven medals in 2006 in Torino and four in 2010 in Vancouver. So when they came home empty-handed from the Sochi Games in 2014, the performance left many scratching their heads.
If this world cup season is any indication, the U.S. team has more than moved beyond Sochi. Now the World Single Distances Championships will be an opportunity for the Americans to show they’re ready for redemption in 2018, and on the 2018 Olympic ice, no less.
Bowe Bows Out, But Bergsma Looks For Continued Dominance
Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma have been the headliners for US Speedskating since Sochi, but Bergsma will be without her sidekick in Korea. Bowe had to withdraw because of symptoms from a concussion that happened prior to this season.
Bergsma does it all. The two-time Olympian and current the ISU Grand World Cup leader competes in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races, as well as the mass start. She ranks among the top nine in each event, but is most dominant in the 1,000, having won all five world cup races she’s entered at that distance this season.
Bowe, the only skater to win three individual medals in the 2015-16 World Single Distances Championships, was scheduled to compete in the 500 and 1,000. Sugar Todd, a 2014 Olympian, will replace Bowe in the 500, while Kelly Gunther takes Bowe’s spot in the 1,000.
Joey Mantia Leads Olympic-Heavy Men’s Team
Joey Mantia, a 2014 Olympian, leads the charge for the men’s team. Mantia is ranked fifth in the men’s ISU Grand World Cup standings and is third in the men’s 1,500 and mass start overall point rankings. He’s joined by four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, who won back-to-back gold medals in the 1,000 and back-to-back silver medals in the 1,500 in 2006 and 2010. Davis has been on the world cup podium twice this season – in the 1,000 and again in the 1,500 and looks to add to his impressive resume of 15 world single distances medals.
In fact, all six U.S. men competing in Gangneung all have Olympic experience: Brian Hansen (2010, 2014) is an Olympic silver medalist, while Mitch Whitmore (2010, 2014), Jonathan Garcia (2014), KC Boutiette (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006) have all taken part in at least one Winter Games.
Young Women Look To Make Their Mark
Nine of the 11 skaters on Team USA’s roster are Olympians, and six of them competed at last year’s World Single Distances Championships in Russia. There are still some fresh faces in the women’s lineup, though.
Petra Acker and Gunther are making their World Single Distances Championships debuts, both in the team pursuit. Acker was a member of three-consecutive world junior championship teams from 2009-2012, while Gunther is a 2014 Olympian. Their team pursuit teammate Mia Manganello has competed in the World Single Distances Championships but is still aiming for her first Olympic Winter Games in 2018.
Veterans Finding Their Fountain of Youth
Manganello might be aiming for her first Olympic Games, but she’s been around the oval on skates before. She competed in the team pursuit at the 2007 World Single Distances Championships and was in three junior world championships before taking a five-year break from the sport to pursue a professional cycling career. Since returning in early 2016, she’s posted some blazing times and will compete in the 1,500, 3,000/5,000 and mass start in Gangneung. She posted a fourth-place finish at a mass start in her first world cup back.
And speaking of comebacks, Boutiette has everyone beat. The 46-year-old competed in his fourth and last Olympic Winter Games in 2006, but now he’s back and shooting for a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. Boutiette, who became the oldest skater to earn a world cup medal in December, will compete in the mass start, which is the reason he returned. Earlier this season, he earned a silver world cup medal in the event, becoming the oldest world cup medalist ever.
How To Watch: The events will be televised on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET on Feb. 9, noon ET on Feb. 10, 5:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 11, and 5 p.m. ET on Feb. 12.
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.