MILWAUKEE — Just under five months ago, Mitch Whitmore was down — but not quite out — with a broken sacrum.
Now the 28-year-old long track speedskating sprinter has qualified for his second event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Whitmore decisively won the men’s 500-meter Friday night at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating with a time of 35.03, set in his first of two heats.
Two days ago, he finished a surprise third in the men’s 1,000 and qualified for his third Olympic team. But the 500 is his strongest event.
“Today and Wednesday, there was really good skating in there,” he said after winning his signature event. “The slow reaction today off the openers [the first 100 meters] is an area I can work on. But the corners were better, and the rest of the skating was good.”
Whitmore skated the first 100 meters in 9.99 seconds, which he said “is obviously not going to get the job done at the Olympics.”
Sochi Olympian Jonathan Garcia finished second, over a half-second behind Whitmore in 35.22 (the time from his second heat), with Kimani Griffin in third with 35.26 (also his second heat time). They must wait until later in the trials to learn if one or both will be nominated to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
Only eight men can be named to the U.S. speedskating team competing in PyeongChang. To date, Joey Mantia, Shani Davis and Whitmore have qualified.
Asked if it’s difficult to wait, a laid-back Griffin said no.
“We’re taking eight guys,” he said. “I don’t see us having a problem going over that quota. But right now, I’m just kind of hanging out.”
For Garcia, possibly earning a spot in the 500 in PyeongChang was bittersweet. He is strongest in the 10,00. But he finished fourth in that race on Wednesday night and missed qualifying (the top three in the 1,000 automatically qualified for that event in PyeongChang).
“It’s been really hard for me to take my mind off Wednesday,” he said after the 500. “Basically the only time I’ve actually taken my mind off Wednesday is the two times I went to the line today. It’s going to be something I’m probably going to look back on and be upset about for a long time.”
But then he was quick to add: “Not too upset. I did everything I could. I just flat out got beat that day. My teammates are amazing, and they’re super fast. I wish them the best, and I’m sure they’re going to represent USA awesome [in the 1,000] in Korea.”
It will be Whitmore’s third trip to the Games. In 2010, he finished 37th in the 500; in 2014, he moved up to 27th. After Sochi, 1994 Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen offered to work with Whitmore.
“He’s definitely helped with getting more power into the ice,” Whitmore told TeamUSA.org last month. “He’s great for bouncing ideas off of technically, plus also the mental aspect. He’s been super supportive and helped me each weekend just think about the right things. It’s been an honor to have somebody like that in my corner and helping me out.”
After finishing fourth in the 500 at the 2017 World Single Distances Championships on the Gangneung Oval — site of the 2018 Olympic speedskating races — Whitmore thought 2018 could be his year to win an Olympic medal. Until he crashed on his bike in August during a US Speedskating bike camp and cracked the triangular bone at the bottom of his spine in five places.
“You can’t do anything for it,” Whitmore told TeamUSA.org. “It just had to heal on its own.”
The injury made him miss more than a month of training. But he has come back strong. He qualified for the world cup team, and by the fourth and final world cup before Olympic trials, Whitmore finished eighth in the 500 in 34.38, just shy of his American record time of 34.19.
Although his fitness is not yet where he would like it to be, Whitmore showed how far he has come on Wednesday night when he qualified for the Olympic Games in the 1,000. As Joey Mantia, winner of the 1,000, said, “He’s got one of the fastest laps on the planet.”
The U.S. men have not won an Olympic medal in the 500 since Joey Cheek claimed the gold in 2006.
Whitmore aims to change that.
“I’ve got a lot of room for improvement still,” he said. “We didn't quite taper and peak for this competition as much as I will for the Olympics, and I think that will show, especially in the openers.
“I’m shooting for a 9.6 something. If I do that, I can win.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.