MILWAUKEE — Joey Mantia was the new guy on the team at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Now the 31-year-old speedskater is the first of three men named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
In a four-man showdown in the men’s 1,000-meter at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating, Mantia won, beating two Olympic medalists with a time of 1:09.15.
“I’m going to sleep well tonight,” he said. “Last night, I was up at 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, tossing and turning. It’s just a high stress situation. It’s tough, it’s the Olympics. I’ve been doing this my whole life, but you never get used to that pressure, especially when the reality is you might not make it because there are six guys that are going for three spots."
“I don’t think any of us skated a great race,” he added. “But for me, it’s a sigh of relief getting the gold and making the Olympic team.”
Four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, 35, came in second in 1:09.23 and will be nominated to his fifth Olympic team. And Mitch Whitmore, 28, came in third, in 1:09.32 qualifying the sprinter for his third Olympic team.
“To finally go to the Olympics in the 1,000, it’s special,” said Whitmore, whose strongest event is the 500. “I’ve always wanted to. I don’t want to just be typecast as a one-race skater.”
The U.S. earned three quota spots for the 1,000-meter in PyeongChang and did well enough in the first four world cup races this season so that the top three men in the 1,000 at Olympic trials would automatically qualify for the team.
Jonathan Garcia, who competed in the 1,000 in Sochi (finishing 28th), missed qualifying for the team in the 1,000 by a third of a second. The 31-year-old sprinter has another chance in the 500 on Friday.
The race was decided in the last three pairs. Davis skated with Kimani Griffin, then sat back to see if his 1:09.23 would hold up with Whitmore and Mantia skating, then Olympians Garcia and Brian Hansen.
“I went out there and fought like it was the last race of my career,” said Davis, who admitted thinking about what might happen if he didn’t make the team. His teammates are fast now too, and it’s no longer a given that he would make the Olympic team.
“I was able to make the spot on the team, and I’m very happy about that,” he added.
When he won the 1,000 in Torino in 2006, Davis became the first African-American athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Games. Since the Sochi Games, where Davis struggled along with the entire U.S. team and finished eighth in the 1,000, Davis has won a world title in the 1,000 (2015) — his last major international victory — and he became the all-time ISU World Cup points leader, passing Canadian Jeremy Wotherspoon in December 2016.
This will be Davis’ fifth Olympic team, but fourth in long track. The “middle-distance king” has competed internationally for 18 years and still holds the 1,000 world record (1:06.42, set in 2009).
Asked if his motivation has changed now that he is the elder statesman of US Speedskating, Davis said no, he still wants to win and be the fastest skater in the world but is realistic.
“I’m going to do my best when I get [to PyeongChang], and whatever happens, happens,” he said.
A 28-time world champion in inline skating, Mantia switched to the ice before the Sochi Olympic Games. He finished 15th in the 1,000 at Sochi but has since become one of the strongest 1,000-meter skaters for the U.S.
Paired with Whitmore in the 1,000 at trials, Mantia was nervous. He knew Whitmore would be “fast out of the gate.”
“[Mitch] has got one of the fastest laps on the planet,” said Mantia. “For me, I have a hard time when I’m not really close to my pair, when I feel like I’m not coming back to my pair. And I didn’t come back on him until the last corner, and that made it really tough. Luckily, I was able to stay composed and get the race done.”
Mantia’s stronger events have become the 1,500 and mass start, a new event on the 2018 Olympic program, and he is looking forward to those races at trials later this week. He owns 10 world cup medals in the 1,500 and mass start races, nine of which he’s won since Sochi. He is also the reigning mass start world champion.
“I honestly believe my best shot of medaling in PyeongChang would be the mass start and the team pursuit, followed by the 1,500 and the 1,000, in that order, probably,” Mantia said.
As for team’s chances at medaling in PyeongChang — after the U.S. team was shut out from the medals in Sochi for the first time since the 1984 Olympics — Mantia is hopeful.
“This is a chance at redemption for us,” he said. “Obviously, Sochi was a disaster. We fixed every problem we had in Sochi. At this point, we have all the tools that we need.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.