Brittany Bowe reacts after competing in the women's 1,500-meter long track speedskating race at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb, 12, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Nineteen months after hitting her head on the ice and suffering a concussion and related issues, Brittany Bowe found herself under the bright lights of an Olympic oval.
“When I went to the line, I was just super grateful to have the opportunity to skate my best in front of millions of people,” said Bowe.
She came closer to an Olympic medal than any other Team USA long track speedskater in eight years, placing fifth in the 1,500-meter Monday night at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
The U.S. long track team was uncharacteristically shut out of the medals four years ago in Sochi, with the best finish a sixth place in women’s team pursuit. No individual skater finished higher than seventh.
Bowe posted a time of 1:55.54 seconds after skating in the seventh of 14 pairs. She briefly took the lead, but lost it when eventual champion Ireen Wust of the Netherlands skated in the 11th pair.
However, Bowe didn’t drop out of medal contention until the 13th (next to last) pair at the Gangneung Oval.
“I feel great,” said Bowe, noting that it was her best skate in a couple of years. “I feel super proud of that performance. I was able to execute what I wanted to execute. It was a fight all the way to the end to leave everything out there on the ice.”
Her previous best was eighth in the 1,000-meter in Sochi, her first Olympic Games.
World-record holder Heather Bergsma of Team USA, who had been a medal favorite, was on gold-medal pace until she ran out of gas with a lap to go and placed eighth in 1:56.74.
“It was OK,” the three-time Olympian said glumly. “It wasn’t my best race, so I can’t be super happy about it.”
After what Bergsma acknowledged was a good start, the rest of the race “was kind of a blur.”
Her last lap was 3 seconds slower than the previous one. “Yeah, it was just a hard last lap,” she said.
Wust, who was also the gold medalist in 2010, silver medalist in 2014 and bronze medalist in 2006, won her 10th Olympic medal.
Her winning time was 1:54.35, while Japan’s Miho Takagi, skating in the pair with Bergsma, was second in 1:54.55. Marrit Leenstra of the Netherlands took the bronze over teammate Lotte van Beek, 1:55.26 to 1:55.27.
Mia Manganello of Team USA was 22nd in 1:59.93.
Bowe had the satisfaction of beating Nao Kodaira of Japan, who snagged her 1,000-meter world record in December in Kearns, Utah. Kodaira finished sixth in 1:56.11.
She said her performance in the 1,500 “gives me really great momentum going into the 1,000.”
A former inline skater from Ocala, Florida, Bowe’s promising career suffered a setback in July 2016 when she collided with a teammate in training, and her head hit the ice. She eventually had to cut her season short due to a concussion. Bowe also suffered from vestibular dysfunction, post-concussion syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which made her feel faint and dizzy.
She started really feeling like herself again at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in early January, where she qualified for Team USA.
“It’s been an uphill battle for the past year or two,” Bowe said, “but (I was) just staying patient, staying in the moment, trust in my coach, trust in the program, and I have a great support team and staff that’s lifting me up day after day, week after week.”
She added that a great pre-Olympic training camp in Milwaukee set her and her teammates up to skate to the best of their ability.
“I think I can speak for the entire U.S. team, especially the U.S. sprint team, that we’ve done everything that we can do to prepare ourselves,” Bowe said. “And I know every single one of us is going to the start line knowing that we’ve done everything in our power to skate the best race possible and I think it’s a good sign that I’ve skated the best 1,500 that I’ve skated in a couple of years, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of Team USA is going to do.”
Bowe is embracing her second Olympic Games.
“Being able to come here to practice with the race lights on every day, to see the Olympic banners every time you enter the oval, is just a great experience,” she said.
At the Opening Ceremony, she posed for a photograph with figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy as the three openly gay Team USA athletes. She posted the photo on social media and newspapers around the world wrote about her representing the LGBT community.
“It’s nice to be alongside Gus and Adam in a lot of these campaigns,” Bowe said. “I’ve never really been outspoken about one thing or the other, just super focused on my sport, but to be in a class with them is obviously an honor.”
She said she’s seen an outpouring of support in the last week or two. “It’s great to have a whole other community that’s supporting me alongside the community back home in Florida and the community in Utah,” Bowe said of the place she lives and trains, “so I’m super grateful for the support from all the angles.”