MILWAUKEE — Maria Lamb won the mass start race at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating.
But Heather Bergsma and Mia Manganello walked away with the real prize: the two spots in the Olympic mass start race.
In a surprise move, Lamb — a three-time Olympian (2006, 2010, 2014) — broke away with 11 laps to go and held the lead to the end. She almost lapped the entire pack.
“I really didn’t think it would work, especially with how I felt today,” she said, explaining that she accidentally consumed wheat last night, and she has celiac disease. “I felt like there was a one-in-a-million chance that that would actually work. But I really wanted to try. I felt like the happiness outcome if it worked was worth the risk.”
She knew that she would not win in a sprint against Bergsma, so why not try a breakaway?
“Maybe you will die, maybe you’ll get caught, maybe you’ll break your heart,” Lamb thought. “But it’s better to try and know that you gave it everything than to go home and be like, well, what if I tried? What would have happened?”
After Sochi, Lamb was diagnosed with celiac disease, and her training took a backseat to her health. She had finished far back in the previous two mass start Olympic qualifiers — held earlier this fall — and knew she had no chance of qualifying for the 2018 Olympic team.
So why go on a flyer?
“If this was my last day ever skating, not that I think that it is, but that’s what I would do,” Lamb explained. “I’ve been frustrated with my individual races. I almost didn’t want to skate last night. I’ve been kind of sad and heartbroken. But also, that’s me, that way of racing.”
Behind Lamb, Bergsma and Manganello skated slowly in a small pack of seven women. Only when Lamb almost lapped them, with six laps to go, did the pack accelerate.
At the finish, Bergsma outsprinted Manganello, and the two women each tallied enough qualifying points (from the three mass start qualifiers) to qualify for the mass start, which makes its debut at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Last night, Manganello also qualified in the 1,500-meter. And Bergsma qualified in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 this week.
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Asked if she was pleased with how she skated at Olympic trials, Bergsma said yes.
“My main goal was to qualify for the Games in four events and that happened, so I’m happy,” she stated.
The main surprise was Brittany Bowe beating Bergsma in the 1,500, where Bergsma is the reigning world champion and world-record holder.
“It wasn’t a perfect race by any means,” said Bergsma. “But I was really happy to be paired with her. We always push each other.”
With Olympic trials complete, Bergsma has qualified to compete in four races in PyeongChang. And she is a medal-contender in all of them.
“Anything can happen at the Olympic Games,” said Bergsma. “That’s why it’s so exciting to watch. I have four chances, and I’m going to do my best at all four.”
No American speedskater has won more than three Olympic medals at one Games since Eric Heiden claimed five golds in 1980.
Chad Hedrick won three medals at the 2006 Torino Games. But even the legendary Bonnie Blair, who has won six gold medals and a bronze, never won more than two at the same Games.
Since Sochi, where Bergsma finished no better than seventh in three events, the 28-year-old has racked up an impressive trophy collection. Of her 14 world championship medals, she has won 11 since the 2014 Olympics.
Last season alone, she won 12 world cup medals and was named the grand world cup champion. At the 2017 world single distances championships, Bergsma claimed world titles in both the 1,000 and 1,500, and won a bronze medal in the mass start. She also finished second overall at the world sprint championships.
Since her world cup debut in the 2007-08 season, Bergsma has won 34 world cup medals in the 500, 36 in the 1,000 and 15 in the 1,500 — including three medals in the first four world cups this season.
“Heather has proven for the last few seasons what she can do in multiple events,” said Guy Thibault, US Speedskating’s high performance director. “She won a medal in the mass start last year. She didn’t lose a 1,000 last year. She was on the podium in many races [in the 1,500]. So I can see her winning multiple medals.”
The 500 will likely be the most difficult for Bergsma — and Bowe — to win medals. Nao Kodaira from Japan has won every world cup 500 so far this season, with Korea’s Sang-Hwa Lee also a frequent podium contender.
“[The 500 is] going to be a little bit harder,” said Thibault. “But [Heather is] clearly a favorite in the 1,000, clearly a very good chance in the 15, mass start she will be there because she’s been doing laps with her pro team for a few years now, and she can go fast. Team pursuit, if we get [a quota spot], that could be another event with our top girls we could hope for something.”
The U.S. women are the first reserve for the team pursuit.
Manganello is looking forward to working with Bergsma in the mass start.
“I think that's the best way that we can get a country medal at the Olympics, is working as a unit,” Manganello said. “And I think with her and I, I think we've got a great opportunity to do so.”
The 2018 U.S. Olympic Women’s Long Track Speedskating Team
Heather Bergsma: 500, 1,000, 1,500, mass start
Brittany Bowe: 500, 1,000, 1,500
Erin Jackson: 500
Mia Manganello: 1,500, mass start
Carlijn Schoutens: 3,000, 5,000
Jerica Tandiman: 1,000
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.