By Paul D. Bowker
Red Line Editorial
U.S. speedskaters Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe are looking to make history this weekend.
Since Bonnie Blair won the 500- and 1,000-meter races on home ice at the 1995 World Sprint Championships in Milwaukee, no U.S. woman has medaled at the 500 meters in either the World Single Distance Championships or Olympic Winter Games.
If last week’s ISU World Cup speedskating event in Heerenveen, Netherlands, was the dress rehearsal, then this week’s World Single Distance Championships could be the event when that streaks ends.
Competing in the same arena where the world championships will take place, Richardson blasted to wins in the women’s 500- and 1,000-meter races while Bowe medaled in each. Bowe went on to win a second 1,000-meter race.
The deck is now set for the two Olympians.
The World Single Distance Championships begin Thursday at Thialf Ice Arena in Heerenveen with long distance events. Richardson, a two-time Olympian from North Carolina, and Bowe, a 2014 Olympian and former Div. 1 college basketball standout from Florida, are the only U.S. skaters who will race in three events.
“I am excited to see what I’m able to do,” Richardson said after last week’s races in Heerenveen. “I’m really happy with the 500-meter right now. I am able to maintain my speed better as I skate more relaxed. I should be able to do what I have shown now. It will be fun.”
Since the national championships were held in January, Richardson and Bowe have been on fire. Bowe broke two track records and won two gold medals in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter races at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee. The duo finished one-two in the 1,500 at a world cup stop in Hamar, Norway, the week before they hit the ice in Netherlands. And back in December in Heerenveen, Richardson and Bowe finished one-two in another world cup 1,000-meter race. They come into this weekend both ranked in the world cup top 10 for the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 races, while Richardson ranks No. 2 in the Grand World Cup overall standings and Bowe is No. 4.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how far they can push each other,” said US Speedskating sprints coach Matt Kooreman. “Personally I feel like they have just started to scratch the surface of what they are capable of doing.”
They will look to take the next stop when they take the ice for the 1,000-meter race Friday. Bowe, Richardson and Sugar Todd will race the 500 on Saturday. On Sunday, Bowe and Richardson will compete in the 1,500, and Maria Lamb will compete in the mass start.
Five U.S. men will also race in the world championships, including four-time Olympian Shani Davis and Joey Mantia in the 1,500 on Friday and the 1,000 on Saturday. Jonathan Garcia will join them in the 1,000, while Mitch Whitmore will race at 500 meters and Jeffrey Swider-Peltz will be in the men’s mass start, both on Sunday.
Trading in their Wheels
Bowe and Richardson both grew up in warm climates in the southeastern United States, where they were world championship medalists in inline skating. After completing the Wheels on Ice Program (WHiP) led by two-time Olympic speedskating medalist Derek Parra, they quickly became up-and-coming speedskating stars.
Richardson’s hometown of High Point, North Carolina, does not have an ice skating rink, just the Rol-A-Rink. She joined an inline speed team at age 9. It wasn’t until after high school graduation that she turned her speed to the ice. And not easily, at that.
“I wasn’t sure if I’m ever going to get this down,” Richardson recalled in a 2013 interview with TeamUSA.org. “Derek’s like, ‘Try one more time, try one more time.’ It just pushed me over the edge. I started crying. And I think that’s where we really bonded. He really started to help me more after practices. That’s when I just started to pick it up.”
In three short years, she made the U.S. Olympic Team and competed in three events at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She placed sixth in the women’s 500-meter race, ninth in the 1,000 and 16th in the 1,500.
It was those Winter Games that hooked Bowe. She was in her college dorm at Florida Atlantic University watching the Olympic speedskating competition when she decided that skating would be the next step in her life, even though she had never been on ice.
Bowe, who had been a starting guard and scored more than 1,000 points at FAU, took to her new sport. By 2012, she was a two-time silver medalist in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter distances at the U.S. Single Distance Long Track Championships and a bronze medalist at the World Single Distance Championships.
“We tried to fast track her development, so to speak,” said Ryan Shimabukuro, the US Speedskating sprints coach at the time.
Richardson and Bowe both competed at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, placing in the top 10 in the women’s 1,000; Richardson finished seventh and Bowe eighth.
They are even stronger this year, forming a duo that not only pushes skaters from other nations, but also themselves in practice.
“It has been thrilling to watch both Brittany and Heather continue to improve and push their level of skating even higher than last season,” Kooreman said. “Both had undergone some changes in training programs and coaching, and it appears that they have responded well to their new programs.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.