Without Davis, Hedrick, U.S. comes up short in pursuit
Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 8:32PM; Updated: Thursday February 16, 2006 11:56AM
Each of the three U.S. skaters took a turn leading the race before dropping into the back, but by the final lap KC Boutiette (center) was spent.
TURIN, Italy -- With his Drive for Five over, Chad Hedrick will have to soar for four. The speedskater's dream of winning five gold medals and tying the legendary Eric Heiden was probably not realistic, but his aim to win five medals of any color was within reach until the U.S. team failed to advance out of the quarterfinals of the team pursuit on Wednesday evening. To be fair, Hedrick wasn't to blame, as the Italians trumped the U.S. threesome of Hedrick, KC Boutiette and Charles Ryan Leveille. For starters, the U.S. team had the second-fastest time (3 minutes, 44.11 seconds) of the eight teams in the quarters and happened to go head-to-head with the one team that was faster (3:43.64). And Hedrick not only upheld his end of the bargain, he also tried to push his teammates to theirs.
First, a primer on the pursuit, which made its Olympic debut in Turin. The pursuit is different from the relays in short-track skating, in which skaters proceed around pylons a lap at a time, alternately completing one lap in the outside lane and resting in the inner circle for three more laps. That's a great recipe for collisions and gridlock that could rival most expressways.
The long-track pursuit races are more orderly and less random. Three skaters from each team proceed around the 400-meter oval, starting on opposite straightaways. The men skate eight laps; the women skate six. Skaters proceed in a line, with the lead skater breaking the wind for the trailing teammates until the leader falls behind and a teammate takes to the front. For those who have watched the Tour de France, it's a lot like cycling in a peloton. Collisions are rare, since the skater at your back or in front of your heels is your teammate. After a round of prelims, which reduces the field to a divisible eight teams, the squads go head-to-head in single elimination. Finish times are determined by the last of the three skaters on each team to cross the line. Last is the operative word.
Each of the three U.S. skaters took a turn leading the race before dropping into the back. Hedrick took an extra lap in the middle, mainly because he was much faster than the other two skaters and their fresher legs might be able to keep up with him. In addition, the U.S. trio had a game plan to have Hedrick physically nudge Leveille at certain points during the race, a tactic used in some inline races that Hedrick used to win so often before he took to the ice. The plan worked for Hedrick and Leveille, but not for Boutiette. By the final lap, the 35-year-old, four-time Olympian was spent. As Hedrick and Leveille sped around the oval, Boutiette was losing contact with their slipstream, and his teammates were unaware that he was fading off the back.
Hedrick appeared to cross the line at one end of the rink ahead of Enrico Fabris, Italy's first man on the opposite side, but Boutiette was nearly 10 meters behind his teammates, leaving the U.S. -- and Hedrick -- out of the medal hunt. "KC's been skating fast," Hedrick said afterward. "Our strategy just didn't work."
After the race, Boutiette, a well-respected veteran, apologized to Hedrick for slowing down. "I told KC, 'You gave it your all. And you can go to sleep knowing that,'" Hedrick said.
Boutiette, whose best finish was fifth in the 5,000 at the Salt Lake Games, seemed resigned to ending his career without an Olympic medal and looking ahead to starting a pro team. "I'm not a young buck anymore," he said.
The subplot Wednesday was the decision of Shani Davis, the defending world all-around champion, to skip the pursuit so he could prepare for his other events, including the 1,000 on Saturday. Publicly, his teammates backed him. Even privately, Hedrick took the high road, acknowledging Davis' right to opt out, though he was clearly disappointed. "I'd like him to be in it because it would be a pretty sure gold, so it's tough to swallow," Hedrick said earlier in the week. "You'd have two of the best skaters in the world on the same team if he raced."
Hedrick still has three individual events to go: the 1,000 meters on Saturday, the 1,500 on Feb. 21 and the 10,000 on Feb. 24. He may still become the most decorated athlete at the Games, but the Heidenesque chase is now out of his pursuit.