(L-R) Carlijn Schoutens, Mia Manganello, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma celebrate after winning the bronze medal in the long track speedskating team pursuit at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- By the time the U.S. women skated across the finish line, their legs felt numb, Heather Bergsma could hardly see straight and they all weren’t sure if they had done it.
The U.S. speedskaters racing in the team pursuit B final — Bergsma, Brittany Bowe and Mia Manganello — looked to the scoreboard. Then they knew. They had done it. In those three minutes, a group of women became Olympic bronze medalists.
“All of the weight lifted off my shoulders,” Bergsma said.
And once that weight had been lifted, a sense of accomplishment and joy arrived.
All three athletes in the final — plus Carlijn Schoutens who raced with Bergsma and Manganello in the semifinal — had never finished on the podium at an Olympic Winter Games. Bowe had come close numerous times, and Bergsma has plenty of medals from world championships (14 to be exact) but none from the Olympic Games. That is, until now.
The U.S. outskated Canada by 0.45 seconds to take the bronze medal, while Japan finished first with an Olympic record and the Netherlands took silver.
Together, these U.S. women ended a medal drought in their sport and made a bit of history of their own. This marked the first Olympic women’s medal in long track speedskating since 2002, when Chris Witty won gold and Jennifer Rodriguez won two bronzes. No American long track skater had earned an Olympic medal since 2010, and this is the first time the U.S. has earned a women’s team pursuit medal since the event debuted in 2006.
“We've obviously been medal-less for quite some time now,” Bowe said. “To be able to bring this home for not just ourselves, but US Speedskating and for the U.S. Olympic Committee means a ton because they've put in a ton of time and resources to help us be as successful as possible.”
Prior to this event, Bowe had finished in the top five in three individual events in PyeongChang but had not medaled. After medaling at every world championships since the Sochi Games, Bergsma hadn’t finished higher than eighth at these Games.
In what Manganello called a “huge team effort,” the U.S. women stuck with the strategy they used two days ago in the quarterfinal, which was their first time ever racing together. Bergsma and Bowe used their speed to create a significant lead over Canada early. About halfway through the race, Team USA led by more than three seconds.
By the time Manganello slid into the lead position with two-and-a-half laps to go, Canada had started to close the gap. All Manganello wanted was to hang on to that lead. She called for help, so Bergsma gave Bowe a push and Bowe relayed the favor to Manganello. Any time they were close enough, they would try to transfer that energy.
Through it all, Schoutens loudly encouraged her teammates from inside the oval.
“I heard her every lap,” Manganello said.
The medal made it a fitting ending to the Games for Bowe, who was in her last event. After dealing with a concussion in July 2016 and then related issues that came as a result, Bowe remembers watching world championships last year when she said she was in “a really dark place.”
“I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to lace the skates back up,” Bowe said. "Even though I had some near misses [with reaching the Olympic medal podium], I was really happy with all my performances. It just goes to show, it takes a team to get you there.”
The U.S. wasn’t one of the eight nations to initially qualify for the Olympic women’s team pursuit. But as the first reserve for the competition, Team USA was granted a spot in late January when the Olympic Athletes from Russia did not enter any female speedskaters (Russia qualified one of the eight spots).
Through the qualifying events, Manganello, Schoutens and Petra Acker worked to earn an Olympic spot but ultimately came up a bit short. A few weeks ago, however, it turned out to be enough, and Bowe credited Acker for playing a significant role in helping the U.S. to reach this point.
The women who raced together on Wednesday had only started practicing together four days ago.
Still, the U.S. team knew a bronze medal was a reasonable goal. Schoutens skated in the semifinal, which gave Bowe a chance to rest. While the Netherlands beat the U.S. in the semifinal, Team USA was prepared to give its strongest three skaters a shot at a medal.
It worked. The four U.S. athletes ended their night gliding around the oval waving an American flag. After one race, this group of Olympians turned into Olympic medalists.
“I'm not sure if it's completely soaked in yet,” Bowe said. “But I know when we're at the medal plaza getting our medals around our neck, it's going to be probably the coolest experience of our lives.”
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.