U.S. long-track speedskating faces time of reckoning
The U.S. men's pursuit team, led by Chad Hedrick, settled for silver medals
After Friday's upset of Canada, the U.S. women failed to reach the podium
The U.S. must secure sponsorship sooner than later to grow the sport
Now comes the Shani & Stephen hangover.
By the time speedskating competition finished up at the Richmond Olympic Oval on Saturday, the exploits of Shani Davis, who delivered the United States' lone long-track gold medal, and Stephen Colbert, who rallied his viewers to pony up the cash that made American participation possible, seemed to be events of weeks ago. Now the question is where the sport in the U.S. goes from here.
American long-tackers had their most glorious day of the Games on Friday, taking out the heavily favored Dutch men and Canadian women in team pursuit qualifying. But both had comedowns with medals on the line.
After being reminded of the quality of Friday's achievement by watching the Dutch obliterate the Olympic record in one of Saturday's classification skates, the U.S. men lost to Canada and had to content themselves with silver. The Americans fell behind early, and a late rush from Chad Hedrick, Jonathan Kuck and Brian Hansen couldn't quite pull them level.
But considering that the three, plus sub Trevor Marsicano, had skated together only once before coming to Vancouver, the Americans had few regrets. "I'm very happy to be walking away with my fifth medal, all at different distances," said Hedrick, who'll be hanging up his skates. "The average age of the group besides myself is nineteen-and-a-half. This is the future of American skating."
The U.S. women lost a chance to skate for gold or silver when Germany defeated them in the semifinals. Ani Friesinger-Postma, falling and sprawling just before the finish, swung her skate over the line to beat out Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. of the U.S. by .23 seconds. Then, skating Poland for the bronze, the Americans replaced Swider-Peltz Jr. with four-time Olympian Catherine Raney-Norman. But Raney-Norman couldn't keep pace with Jennifer Rodriquez and Jilleanne Rookard over the final two laps of a race in which each team is assigned the time of its last skater to finish.
Before the bronze-medal race U.S. coach Derek Parra had to decide whether to field the same three that had beaten the Dutch, or go with a fresh set of legs. He opted for the latter. "I don't blame anybody," Swider-Peltz Jr. said later. "I could have been great running on adrenaline or I could have bombed. We'll never know."
Parra called the Americans' 10 speedskating medals "pretty amazing," given the chaos in advance of the Games, in which the team lost its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, and alpha dog Davis first indicated he would, then said he wouldn't, skate the team pursuit. But six of those 10 medals came in short-track, and no women long-trackers reached the podium.
When U.S. Speedskating holds its annual meeting at the end of April, the organization's board will face tough decisions on coaches, budget, and how best to integrate skaters based at two domestic training sites, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City.
"Even if we have a plan of action, we have to have a sponsor," said Parra, after sharing a tearful behind-the-scenes hug with Raney-Norman. "We have no sponsor for next year. And if we have no budget, we'll have no coaches.
"For some reason, every four years Americans come out of the woodwork and skate our best. We have no one like Sven Kramer in Holland, making a million a year. We're struggling just to get to the Games."
But a lot can happen in four years, and Kuck provided an example. As a 15-year-old devoted mostly to short-track skating, he had watched the Turin Olympics on TV at home in Champaign, Ill. "It's cool to go from sitting on the couch to a silver medal," he said. "U.S. speedskating should be just fine."
But even if legions of Americans are ready to get up off their couches and skate for medals, they'll flail without coaches and infrastructure. And for that you need sponsorship. "You can't go to the store with a list," Parra said, "unless you have money to buy your groceries."