By Paul D. Bowker
Red Line Editorial
The season has been a historic one.
World champion speedskaters Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson have cut through the international skating scene in a way that American women haven’t accomplished in more than 30 years.
Not even five-time Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair Cruikshank has seen this kind of American team domination. And she has taken notice.
While Bowe and Richardson were finishing one-two in the World Sprint Championships the last week of February in Kazakhstan, among those following the races closely was Blair Cruikshank back home in Milwaukee.
“I couldn’t wait to get up (in the morning) and check my computer to see how they were doing,” Blair Cruikshank said.
Both Bowe and Richardson, former in-line racers, were on the podium for the 500- and 1,000-meter races at the World Sprint Championships and also at the World Single Distance Championships. Bowe and Richardson finished one-two in both races at the world sprints, and each won three medals at the World Single Distance Championships, including Richardson winning the 500 and Bowe finishing runner-up.
Including Bowe’s overall sprint championship, that’s 12 medals between two U.S. skaters in two world championship events. Up next is the World Allround Championships this weekend.
When Richardson won the 500-meter race at the World Single Distance Championships, she became the first American woman to win that event at the single distance worlds since Blair did so in 1995 on home ice in Milwaukee.
Their victories this season have not only fueled interest among current speedskaters across the United States, but also among those that used to skate for Team USA.
“I’m excited for them. Their future is ahead of them,” said Cathy Turner, a four-time Olympic medalist who won gold medals in short track 500-meters at the Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games. “I’m sharing in that kind of quietly behind the scenes, kind of watching it, kind of feeling what it was like for me. I’m excited for them, really.
“I still have it in my blood. Ultimately, it just makes me wish, ‘Gosh, I wish I could skate again.’”
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said US Speedskating Executive Director Ted Morris. “Two women who have worked really hard for the last four or five years and come an incredibly long way athletically. To see them really dominating the world is fantastic for them individually and speedskating in the U.S., and US Speedskating.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Upholding The Women’s Tradition
While Bowe and Richardson are reaching unique milestones in their championship season, including both setting track records in the 500-meter race at the World Single Distance Championships, they are building upon a foundation set over many years.
The tradition is strong among women in U.S. speedskating. Of the 86 Olympic medals won by U.S. speedskaters, women have won 68.6 percent of them.
Three-time Olympic medalist Chris Witty, the last U.S. women’s long tracker to win Olympic gold, won the 1,000-meter race at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Blair Cruikshank was a three-time Olympic champion at 500 meters and two-time champion at 1,000 meters. Leah Poulos won three medals over three Winter Games.
Bowe and Richardson are the first to take the first two podium spots at the World Sprint Championships since Poulos and Beth Heiden did so in 1979. Blair Cruikshank is so hooked by what has happened this season that she has researched it. The one-two finish by Bowe and Richardson marks just the fifth time in American history that two women have been on the same podium at the world sprints, and the first time it has happened in 35 years.
Their momentum is building for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“If they keep on this track, then look out,” Blair Cruikshank said. “It’s great for them because they can feed off of each other. They’re only going to continue to make each other better and keep pushing the envelope.”
A year ago, they were shut out at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The experience led to a conversation months later between Bowe and mentors Blair Cruikshank and Dan Jansen.
“When we were talking to her about the whole situation,” Blair Cruikshank said, “she was really down on it. And frustrated. I think she even to a certain extent was second-guessing herself.”
Their advice: Build on the success she did have, including two top-10 finishes in Sochi.
“It’s easy to tell somebody that, but it’s another thing for them to really take it all in and be able to do it,” Blair Cruikshank said. “And obviously the both of them were able to put the Olympics behind them, build upon this success that they’ve had and it was really fun watching the both of them all season.”
Morris is hoping the spike in American success will lead to more in-liners and other skaters joining the Olympic speedskating movement. Both Bowe and Richardson grew up in southern states (Bowe in Florida and Richardson in North Carolina), and transitioned to speedskating through US Speedskating’s Wheels on Ice (WHiP) program.
Strong skating clubs are in place in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and upstate New York, but plans are to create more opportunities elsewhere, Morris said.
“We’ve got to do more in other areas. … We can’t afford to lose talent and not identify talent,” Morris said.
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 usspeedskating.org since 2015 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.