Andrew Heo, Kristen Santos and Ryan Pivirotto react during the Mixed Team Relay Semifinals at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 5, 2022 in Beijing, China.
BEIJING — Things happen quickly in the world of short track speedskating. In one moment, the U.S. mixed relay team thought it had qualified for the first-ever Olympic final of that event, and in the next the Americans were knocked out of medal contention by an official’s review.
Blocking by an infield skater was the decision that ended the night early for Maame Biney, Andrew Heo, Ryan Pivirotto, Kristen Santos and Corinne Stoddard at Capital Indoor Stadium — an infraction Pivirotto said afterward was against him but that he did not fully understand. It was a disappointing end to what had been something of a surprising run for a U.S. team ranked No. 11 in the world. Team USA has won just one world cup medal in the mixed relay, back in the event’s inaugural 2018-19 season with a team that included Biney and Santos.
“We finished second (in the semifinal) and obviously things didn’t work out, but we believe that we belong there, and I think we could’ve done really well in the final,” Heo said afterward. “It is what it is, and I think we’re all very proud of each other, proud of ourselves, that was the best race I think we’ve all skated. There’s nothing to be upset about, it is what it is and gotta move forward from here.”
With the help of a blazing start from Biney, the U.S. battled its way out of a quarterfinal that included medal contenders Hungary and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), finishing third and snagging one of two semifinal spots for the fastest third-place teams. With Stoddard subbing in for Biney, Team USA then led for large stretches of the semifinal, with Heo ultimately crossing the line behind Hungary but ahead of China to momentarily secure advancement and a 75 percent chance at a medal.
“It was a really good feeling just to be able to cross that line in second, knowing that we qualified for the A Final,” Heo continued. “At that moment I didn’t know, I didn’t think of anything, any reason to be disqualified. Obviously I heard about that after. I think in that moment it was a lot of emotion, lot of happiness, really, really proud of me and my team.”
A penalty was also awarded to the ROC, and neither team took part in Final B. In front of a raucous but socially distanced home crowd, China took home the gold medal in a thrilling photo finish over Italy, with Hungary third. It was the first medal of the Games for the hosts.
While the result was a disappointment for the U.S., the debut of mixed team seemed to be a hit. Bringing the same chaotic energy that all short track relays do with skaters weaving in and out, mixed relay adds an extra element of skaters of vastly different body weights giving each other a push. It’s also a challenge for skaters to keep track of when they’re switching, as they each take two lightning-quick shifts, 2.5 times around the first time and twice the second. That’s 18 laps for a total of 2,000 meters.
“It was such an honor (to compete in the first mixed relay), it was so much fun,” Biney said.
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For two of the U.S. skaters, simply taking Olympic ice was a victory regardless of the final placement. A cut from a skate blade kept Santos off the 2018 Olympic team and she’s spent the ensuing years becoming one of Team USA’s top short trackers. Pivirotto did travel to PyeongChang four years ago, but his only involvement came through supporting his teammates in the stands. Pivirotto was an alternate on the relay and 1,000-meter teams.
The night didn’t end the way U.S. skaters wanted but the earlier sessions held plenty of success for four of them. Santos won her heat in the women’s 500-meter to advance to Monday’s quarterfinals in a time of 43.579 seconds. Biney, the lone returning Olympian on this year’s short track team, also advanced after posting one of the fastest third-place times with a 42.919.
Heo and Pivirotto also each advanced, in the men’s 1,000-meter. Heo finished second in his heat in 1:24.106. Pivirotto too was second in 1:54.437, advancing with the help of a penalty on Belgium’s Stijn Desmet. Men’s 1,000 quarterfinals also take place Monday. Team USA didn’t qualify a men’s relay team so the 1,000 will be the end of action for Heo and Pivirotto.
Biney and Santos are scheduled to compete in the women’s 3000 relay in addition to the 500. They’ll be joined by Stoddard, who didn’t make it out of her 500-meter heat Saturday. Rounding out the 3,000 team are Eunice Lee and Julie Letai, for whom the 3,000 will be their only Olympic event. Biney said that in a way, the penalty the mixed relay team was given could prove to be a learning experience for the women’s relay.
“I think to be aware of other people and to just be more inside of the track before we go out, nice and tight,” she said. “I’m extremely excited for our women’s relay just because I both think that we’re gonna do our best and how we’re gonna pop off, it’s gonna be super exciting. We’re just going to think about today for like a second and then focus on Monday night.”