GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Long track speedskating’s newest Olympic event, the mass start, took Joey Mantia back to his roots in inline skating.
Just not in the way he had hoped.
Mantia, 32, was counting on his experience in pack skating – with 28 world inline titles – to give him an edge in the strategic and unpredictable event, which made its debut at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Instead, Mantia cramped up in both legs with three laps to go in the 16-lap race Saturday night. That’s something that had never happened to him on the ice, but had occurred inline during a marathon race.
“I was freaking out a little bit,” Mantia said, “and I was trying to stay with it. And coming down the final straightaway every push it was just like holding the cramp, holding the cramp.
“It was just not fun.”
Mantia sprinted with the leaders down the final stretch, but bowed his head when he realized he would end up fourth across the line. Because of mass start’s scoring system, which awards points for the top three finishers in three sprints during the race, Mantia placed ninth.
Seung-Hoon Lee of Korea won the final sprint for 60 points to capture the gold medal to the delight of the home crowd. Bart Swings of Belgium was second for 40 points and the silver, while Koen Verweij of the Netherlands was third for 20 points and the bronze in the 16-man final.
Mantia said he tried to push to keep up with Lee when his legs seized. “And I was just like, ‘I don’t know, man. I don’t know.’ I tried to get back in it, but I didn’t hop on those guys early enough and I ultimately didn’t train hard enough or specific enough for this event.”
Mantia came into the mass start riding high. He was the reigning world champion in the event, winning last year on the same track at the Gangneung Oval. And he was coming off a fourth-place finish in the 1,000-meter Friday night, his best placement in his two Olympic Winter Games.
Mantia thought his prospects for winning the first Team USA individual medal in long track speedskating since 2010 were good.
But the mass start is a different animal from two-man racing, with speedskaters drafting off each other, sometimes slowing to a crawl and every now and then wiping out in a crash or getting wiped out by their fellow competitors.
And the end of the semifinals and beginning of the final are only about an hour apart.
Mantia scored three points in a sprint during his semi to qualify for the final, but stayed out of the fray during the sprints in the final.
“I was a little tired in the (semi), so I tried to play it safe in the final,” Mantia said. “I knew I needed to just sit the whole time.
“I had a pretty good feeling the Koreans were going to do what they did and (Sven Kramer of the Netherlands) was going to do what he did, keep it as close as they can for their designated winners.”
At the world championships, Mantia had veteran KC Boutiette working for him in the race. This time he was on his own as teammate Brian Hansen did not advance from the semifinal.
Mantia said it might have helped a little bit having Hansen in the race, but it wouldn’t have made a huge difference since the pack mostly stayed together until the leaders made their final move.
And then the second-guessing began.
“It’s weird because it’s a new event so we didn’t really alter the training program to fit exactly,” Mantia said. “We kind of just rested on the laurels of winning the world championships and ‘Ah, we’ll be good enough.’ When it comes down to these guys racing and everybody’s on top of their game, you’ve got to train specifically and we just didn’t.”
But Mantia, who was also eighth in the 1,500, felt these Games were “way better” than his first Winter Olympics in 2014 three years after switching from inline to ice.
“I went home from Sochi with my head hanging low and tail between my legs so to speak,” said Mantia, who was 15th in the 1,000 and 22nd in the 1,500. “Here, I’m very proud of the fourth place yesterday, fourth across the line in the mass start – one more spot up and I would have had a medal. It’s the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ kind of thing right now where you analyze what happened, what you can do moving forward.”
And that could mean getting ready for Beijing 2022.
“Chances are,” Mantia said, “I’ll go another four years and chase the gold because I’m still hungry for it.”