By Emily Giambalvo | Feb. 19, 2018, 10:07 a.m. (ET)

Mia Manganello, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma compete in the women's team pursuit speedskating quarterfinals at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 19, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.  

 

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Racing in the last pair of the quarterfinals and after almost not qualifying an Olympic spot, the U.S. women competing in long track speedskating’s team pursuit knew what it would take to advance.

“We just looked at each other and said, 'We've got to skate fast. That's all there is to it,’” Brittany Bowe said.

And that’s exactly what Team USA did. The trio of Heather Bergsma, Bowe and Mia Manganello crossed the finish line in 2:59.75 — about five seconds faster than the Polish team skating on the other side of the ice and, more importantly, faster than four other teams in the field.

As soon as Team USA’s official time registered in the system, the scoreboard reflected the change. After training together for just two days, this U.S. team finished fourth to secure a spot in Wednesday’s semifinals, where three of the four teams leave with medals.

“I threw both hands up and I'm screaming,” said Manganello, who’s competing at her first Olympic Winter Games. “I wanted this bad. I know all three of us did.”

It was an impressive feat considering the U.S. was not even one of the eight nations to qualify for the Olympic women’s team pursuit event. Seeded as the first reserve for the competition, Team USA was granted a spot in late January when it was determined Olympic Athletes from Russia was not entering any female speedskaters (Russia had initially earned one of the eight spots in the event).

Team USA is set to face the Netherlands in the semifinals, and the winner will skate in the A final for an opportunity to win a gold medal. Even if the Netherlands, a speedskating powerhouse whose three team pursuit women have combined for four medals at these Games alone, outperforms the U.S., the Americans still have a shot at a bronze medal in the B final.

And that’s what this fourth-place finish symbolized — a chance to win a medal.

Over and over, Bowe has come remarkably close to earning her first Olympic medal. In 2014, she was part of the team pursuit that finished sixth. In her three individual races at these Games, Bowe has finished in the top five all three times. The label of fourth-best or fifth-best athlete in the world is no small feat. But with it also lingers that awareness of finishing so close, painfully close, to the medal stand.

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“To look up on the scoreboard and to be genuinely happy for the first time this competition is a good feeling,” Bowe said.

Thanks to this impressive quarterfinals skate, Bowe will have another chance to make it to the podium.

“You better believe I'm going to give it everything I have to get there,” Bowe said.

For all three Americans, an Olympic medal in this event would be a significant milestone because, for everyone, it would be their first. It would also be the country’s first long track speedskating medal since 2010.

After competing in three Games, Bergsma’s top Olympic finish is sixth — in the 500-meter in 2010 and then again in the 2014 team pursuit with Bowe. Despite earning medals at every world championships since the Sochi Games for a career total of 14, Bergsma hasn’t translated that success to PyeongChang.

“But she's kept her spirits up,” Bowe said. “She's the heart and soul of that team there at the end getting us to the finish line.”

While just three athletes skate in each race, Carlijn Schoutens is also on the U.S. team pursuit roster, meaning she could be called upon in the semifinal or final. Should the team medal, she will only receive that medal if she skates in at least one of those races.

The team pursuit is unlike the other long track events that usually feature just two skaters at a time racing in different lanes for time. In this event, three women from each nation skate in a pack, making it a race that requires strategy and practice. The athletes and coaches must learn the skaters’ habits and strengths to develop a plan that best suits the group.

On Monday, Bowe and Bergsma led the team with their speed in the beginning. Manganello, who said she doesn’t have the best starts, benefited from the draft and then used her endurance to lead the group into the finish.

“Team pursuit, it's a difficult event in the sense [that] you find comfort with training with one another and skating often with one another,” Manganello said.

For this group, the situation at these Games was quite the opposite. Sure, they are used to racing in packs thanks to their backgrounds in inline skating, but the trio had never raced team pursuit together before Monday and they started practicing together just two days before the quarterfinals.

Yet, for these three, that’s all it took. So just imagine, they said, what they’ll be able to do by the time the semifinals arrive.

“In two more days,” Manganello said, “we're going to be breaking records, right?”

Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.

For live video and highlights of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, head to the networks of NBC and NBCOlympics.com.