KEARNS, Utah – Joey Mantia entered the final day of the 2020 ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships with two races on his plate and just one hour between them.
Mantia left Sunday with a medal in one of the two events, but not the one anyone expected.
The two-time defending world champion in mass start was favored to repeat for an unprecedented third gold medal. Instead, he claimed his career-first world medal in a time trial event: the 1,500-meter. It was Team USA’s only medal of the event.
He had previously finished no higher than seventh at the world championships and Olympic Games in the 1,500, though had amassed 10 world cup medals in the event.
All it took was a little home ice to change that.
“It’s really nice,” Mantia said of competing world championships at the Utah Olympic Oval, home to the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 and now the single distance worlds for the first time in 13 years. “We had a really good turnout. You compete in Heerenveen [the Netherlands] and everybody cheers no matter who you are, it’s great. Usually in the States, if it’s not the world championships it’s a little bit less attendance than is ideal but that’s to be expected because we don’t have the most popular sport in America when it comes to speedskating.
“[This week] you step on the line, your name is announced and everybody cheers. It’s a little boost of confidence, and that’s why I was able to walk away with this today.”
The 34-year-old had won 28 world titles in inline skating – many of which came in time trials – but after making the switch to ice at age 25 for a shot at the Olympic Winter Games and coming up empty-handed at the world level in long track speedskating’s traditional events for the greater part of a decade, he had started to lose hope.
Then, skating in the fifth of 12 pairs in the 1,500, the two-time Olympian completed the nearly-four-lap race in 1:42.45, lowering his personal best by 0.286 seconds.
“I’m ecstatic about it – a PB, I haven’t PBed in this race in four or five years now,” Mantia exclaimed. “Starting to think I’m so old that maybe I can’t time-trial anymore, but maybe there’s a little bit of hope left.
“I went into today’s race with a lot of focus. With the mass start, I’m always thinking, this is my day, this is my race. I think that helped fuel the fire for the 1,500.”
“It was one of the strongest races he’s ever done,” long track national team head coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. “Any time you can skate a personal best, it’s a very good race. But more so than the result and the time was how he skated it, we’ve been training a specific way, strategy, and I was glad to see him execute that today.”
Mantia had left the oval almost immediately after his 1,500-meter pair to cool down before the mass start, slated to begin an hour later.
Once the 1,500 ended, he learned his time held up for bronze behind reigning Olympic champion Kjeld Nuis (1:41.664) and reigning world champion Thomas Krol (1:41.735), both from the Netherlands.
“I was trying to recover and get ready for the mass start – put my legs up, my heart rate was still at 140 like 20 minutes before my race. I didn’t want to watch and I’m like waiting and waiting, then I heard everybody cheer,” Mantia recalled.
He returned to the ice for the medal ceremony, then tried to warm up for the mass start while the women’s race ran.
Mantia had been revving up for a strong performance at this year’s world championships on the coattails of one of the best world cup seasons of his career, which has included a mass start gold medal in November and silver in December. He leads the mass start world cup standings.
But the tight turnaround left him without the energy he needed to make a final push for a third consecutive medal in his signature event, and Mantia finished fifth in the event he has called “NASCAR on ice.”
Having debuted at worlds in 2015 and the Olympics in 2018, mass start differs from traditional long track races – where two skaters are on the ice at once and race against the clock – in that the 16-lap race involves 24 skaters strategizing for points in four intermediate sprints and, ultimately, the win.
Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands, a three-time world champion in the 10,000 who hadn’t raced since Friday, took the win.
“It’s brutal because the 1,500 you create so much lactic acid, you don’t just clear that right away,” Shimabukuro explained. “But it is what it is, and we knew that going in. We trained for that the early part of the year. We hadn’t been able to do that recently but with half a lap more he could’ve been on that podium, but it was just a little too late.”
Mantia said he hopes the International Skating Union reconsiders the schedule for future world championships and is able to spread the eight men’s and eight women’s events of world single distances across five or six days instead of just four.
“The 1,500, in my opinion, is the hardest race in long track. Then you put the mass start right on top of that and it’s 16 laps an hour later. It’s extremely tough; you have to be extremely fit to be able to do that,” he explained.
The schedule won’t be a problem when it comes to excelling at Mantia’s ultimate goal, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, where each race is held on a different day.
“I feel good about going into the Games coming off of this and looking forward to how next year goes. I’m optimistic right now,” Mantia said.
His age could be a factor, though, as Mantia will be 36 in Beijing.
“I would say I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m also older than I’ve ever been in my life and I’m older than most of the people out there, so it’s taking its toll.”
Shimabukuro believes Mantia, who remains the oldest American speedskater to medal at any of the sport's three world championships, can overcome Father Time.
“He’s definitely the elder statesman from the guys’ side,” the coach said. “We just have to be careful and be smart about the training and balancing the recovery in it. I definitely think he’s still capable in two years to do even better performances, we just have to be smart about the approach.”