The third time turned out to indeed be a charm for long track speedskater Joey Mantia, who claimed his first world championships podium on ice with an impressive gold medal in the men’s mass start Sunday at the World Single Distances Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, the Olympic test event for the Gangneung Oval. Mass start makes its Olympic debut next year.
This was both Mantia’s third world single distances championships, and his third race of this meet.
Five days after his 31st birthday, Mantia won the mass start with a time of 7:40.16, 0.95 seconds ahead of France’s Alexis Contin, who posted a 7:41.11. Canadian Olivier Jean earned bronze in 7:47.62.
But the day didn’t start on such a positive note for the 2014 Olympian, who endured a seventh-place showing in the 1,500-meter, an event where he has earned world cup gold and bronze this season, helping his to third place in the series standings.
“In my mind, I had a really good shot of at least making the podium in that race, so it was a pretty disappointing race,” he told TeamUSA.org. Facing a quick turn-around to be ready for the mass start, Mantia generated a more optimistic mind frame based on memories of a world cup meet two months ago in the Netherlands.
“The same exact thing happened in Heerenveen, where I had a rough go at the time trial races and the 1,500, then turned around at the end of the meet and won the mass start,” he recalled. “Having that in the back of my head definitely helped with the confidence and knowing that no matter how the races before went, I always have the opportunity to bring it back up and make something happen in the mass start.”
An Ocala, Florida, native who has relocated to Salt Lake City, Mantia began as an inline skater and realized great success, winning 28 world championships, three Pan American Games titles and 15 world cup golds. Since crossing over onto ice in 2011, he’s earned 10 world cup medals, including four golds, but a world championship podium had proven elusive until Sunday. Part of the challenge has been getting his head around the difference in competition format.
“Coming from inline, we don’t have time trials,” he said. “Everything is pretty much freestyle, like short track. In long track, everything is on your own. If you’re not in the game and you’re not committed to getting up and going as fast as you can, it makes time trials really hard. That’s something I’m still trying to learn. I have yet to really pinpoint what can bring that consistency to the time trial aspect of the sport. Luckily with the mass start, it’s a little more in my wheelhouse in the sense of what inline was.”
As the reigning world champion going into the PyeongChang Games, Mantia’s name will be among the medal favorites. After spending the last two weeks becoming familiar with the surroundings in Korea, and with the game plan the US Speedskating team is crafting, it’s a challenge he’s ready to tackle.
“This whole year, we’ve been putting together a performance plan and trying to make it so we can replicate it exactly next year leading into the Games, including Olympic Trials,” he said. “That’s a huge confidence booster, knowing that if we do the same things we did this year, things should work out and we should be ready to win in PyeongChang.”
Part of the plan includes settling into the Olympic environment early, which Mantia cited as a major advantage for the world championships.
“Getting here two weeks early is a huge thing,” he noted. “Getting over the jetlag and being able to get some sleep is huge, as well as getting a feel for the venue. Every time we skate in a new venue, I’m a little off my game. And every time we go back to a venue we raced at before, it’s a little more comfortable.”
Experiencing the venue where he will compete in his second Olympic Games has stirred the thrill that only will grow in the coming months.
“Everything about here is Olympic rings, so you’re starting to get the feel,” Mantia said. “We’re getting that Olympic fever going already, and it’s nice to have that as we lead into the next season.”
But there’s still work to be done this season. Currently third in the world cup mass start standings, only 12 points away from second, he also ranks third in the 1,500 and fifth in the ISU Grand World Cup standings. The world cup season concludes with the final March 10-12 in Stavanger, Norway.
KC Boutiette, a four-time Olympian who came out of retirement with a goal of making the 2018 Olympic team in mass start, was 12th in 7:52.21. The 46-year-old became the oldest skater to win a world cup medal when he earned silver last December in Nagano, Japan.
Brandon Penny contributed to this report.