GANGEUNG, South Korea -- Joey Mantia surprised the audience, his coach and even himself with an impressive fourth-place finish in long track speedskating’s 1,000-meter Friday night.
“Honestly, I was just looking at top 10,” said his coach Matt Kooreman. “If we got top 10 in the 1,000-meter that would be a really nice result for him. So fourth was almost a little bit of a surprise.”
While Mantia entered the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as a medal contender, it was not in the 1,000. The 1,000 is the weakest of his three individual events.
His highest world championships finish at this distance is 10th in 2015, and his highest world cup finish sixth after six seasons on the circuit.
Skating in the 13th of 18 pairs, the two-time Olympian's 1:08.56 race initially positioned him at the top of the rankings. He was ultimately edged out by the Netherlands’ Kjeld Nuis, who won gold with a time of 1:07.95, Norway’s Havard Lorentzen with silver just 0.04 seconds back and Korea’s Kim Tae-Yun with bronze, 0.34 seconds ahead of Manti.
“I told myself if I skated anything in the 1:08s I’d be happy after the 1,500,” Mantia said.
Ten days prior, Mantia finished eighth in the 1,500, one of the events in which he knew he was capable of medaling, having earned eight world cup medals at that distance.
His best is yet to come, though. The 32-year-old will end his Games competing in the mass start on Saturday. Mass start makes its debut at these Games and Mantia is primed for a strong performance after winning the 2017 mass start world title at the Olympic venue.
Kooreman describes Mantia placing this high in the 1,000 as an unexpected, but welcomed, confidence boost going into the race.
“I totally didn’t see this coming,” Mantia said. “I thought if I was top 10 coming out of tonight I’d be happy… Normally I wouldn’t look at the time trials to give me [indication] towards the mass start but at this point, yeah I’ll take it.”
Not only did Mantia finish in the top 10 as he had hoped, but so did his two teammates in the race. Two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis finished seventh with a time of 1:08.78 for his best individual Olympic finish since 2010 and Mitch Whitmore was 10th at 1:09.17.
Whitmore said that although Mantia might prefer mass starts as opposed to time trials, the technique used in the former to pull ahead of the group is without a doubt an advantage for him in the latter.
“I mean, he grew up inlining,” he said. “It’s just second nature to him, strategy-wise. Also like the quick intervals in the race, I think that’s a completely different style than time trialing and obviously he’s got that down in the past, so I think he’ll do pretty well tomorrow.”
When asked if fourth is the hardest place to come in at an Olympic Games, as it is widely perceived to be, Mantia promptly disagreed.
“No, I would say last is probably the worst place to finish,” he said. “I mean you’re still at the Olympics. You’re still supporting the world… I’m optimistic about it. I wasn’t really expecting anything in that so fourth is awesome.”
Sure, everyone would choose medal over no medal if it were that easy. But as Whitmore said, in a situation where you’re put up against the best athletes in the world, it’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental win that comes with wearing the red, white and blue on the Olympic stage in the first place.
Tomorrow, Mantia has his final chance in PyeongChang to bring home a medal for the U.S. But tonight, he’s sleeping on cloud nine.
“I’m floating right now,” he said. “I’m really ecstatic about it.”Cat Hendrick 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.