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Can U.S. Speedskating Regain Its Edge?

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The first gold medal to be awarded at the inaugural Winter Olympics is housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. U.S. speedskater Charles Jewtraw earned it at the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France, when he completed the men’s 500-meter race in 44 seconds. The win inspired fellow Lake Placid, New York, speedskater Jack Shea so deeply that he prayed for the opportunity to replicate the success of his idol.

Eight years after Jewtraw’s record-setting win, Shea became the first U.S. athlete to win multiple gold medals at a single Winter Games when he won both the 500- and 1,500-meter races held in his hometown. When the Olympics returned to Lake Placid in 1980, Eric Heiden had arguably the single greatest performance at an Olympic Games, when he set five Olympic records and one world record while winning all five races he entered. Eight years later, Bonnie Blair started her run of Olympic brilliance, winning the first of her six total medals.

But podiums once dominated by red, white and blue have been anything but at recent Games.

Speedskating is one of six sports to appear at every Winter Olympics, though women’s events weren’t added until 1960. Short track speed skating, popularized in the U.S. by eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Anton Ohno, was introduced at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Thanks to legendary skaters like Heiden and Blair (both five-time gold medalists), speedskating has accounted for more U.S. Olympic medals than any winter sport

Speedskating has been a goldmine for Team USA 🇺🇸

Winter Olympics disciplines by total medals earned by the United States, through 2018

Discipline
Gold 🥇
Silver 🥈
Bronze 🥉
Total
Speedskating 29 22 17 68
Figure skating 15 16 20 51
Alpine skiing 17 20 10 47
Snowboarding 14 7 10 31
Bobsleigh 7 10 8 25
Freestlye skiing 9 9 7 25
Short track speedskating 4 7 9 20
Ice hockey 4 11 2 17
Skelton 3 4 1 8
Luge 0 3 3 6
Nordic combined 1 3 0 4
Cross-county skiing 1 1 0 2
Curling 1 0 1 2
Ski jumping 0 0 1 1
Biathlon 0 0 0 0

Includes medals won at the 1920 Summer Olympics in figure skating and ice hockey, before the first Winter Olympics.

Source: Olympedia

However, only one of the country’s 27 most recent gold medals — and five of its past 88 medals overall — at the Winter Olympics came in the long track events. 

A one-medal performance in Pyeongchang was considered an improvement over Sochi, when the U.S. was shut out for the first time in 30 years and an American didn’t so much as crack the top six in a single long track event.

These past three Games have continued a downward trend for the U.S., which is no longer the standard-bearer of the discipline. Consider that speedskating alone was responsible for more than a third of U.S. medals from 1924 to 1980. But in the nine Olympics since, it has accounted for 15 percent, with just a single instance of the discipline exceeding a 28 percent country medal share over that stretch, according to Olympedia. The same country that cracked the top three in the sport’s medal count at seven of the 10 Olympics held from 1972 to 2006 hasn’t won a single individual medal since 2010.

During a disastrous performance in Sochi, Bob Fenn, a long-time coach who arguably gave more to U.S. speedskating than any single person, likened the country’s speedskating downturn to the fall of the Roman Empire. Everything from a failed Under Armour-Lockheed Martin skin suit collaboration to high-altitude training to pipeline development has been blamed for the dropoff at recent Games. 

But there are signs for U.S. optimism at the 2022 Beijing Games.

The U.S. women’s long track team features four skaters — Erin Jackson, Brittany Bowe, Kimi Goetz and Mia Kilburg-Manganello — who are among the top 10 in the world for their respective events. Jackson is the world’s top-ranked skater in the 500-meter race, but she might not be competing in Beijing had it not been for Bowe, who finished ahead of her at the Olympic Trials and relinquished her spot. Bowe is the defending world champion, current world record holder and No. 1-ranked skater in the 1,000-meter race, and she ranks second in the world in the 1,500-meter race.

“I’ve been around for a while,” said Kilburg-Manganello, who is ranked fifth in the world in the mass start event. “It’s one of the strongest teams I’ve ever witnessed.”

The men’s roster doesn’t pack nearly as much firepower, but it does include three top-10 world rankings, headlined by Joey Mantia, who is No. 1 in the world in the 1,500, a three-time world champion and top-10 skater in mass start and the lynchpin of the men’s team pursuit unit, which set the world record in December

Mantia has said this will be his final Olympic Games; he’ll turn 36 in Beijing. But the U.S. team will have youth at the Beijing Games in 17-year-old Jordan Stolz, who is the third-youngest American man in history to qualify for the team, and who recently set track records at the Pettit National Ice Center in the 500- and 1,000-meter races.

A total of 14 long track speedskating events will be contested at the Beijing Games. This could be the most balanced U.S. effort in 20 years, and if that’s any indication, it could be a medal rush for the U.S., which won eight medals (tied for the most by the country at a single Games) and topped the podium three times at Salt Lake in 2002.

Recent Games have left the U.S. scrambling behind the competition on the 400-meter oval. Not unlike figure skating, U.S. speedskating isn’t so much at a crossroads as it is in the midst of a nadir. “It’s no secret that a few of us have had a ton of success on the World Cup and world level and have just fallen short at the Games,” Bowe said. “And we’re well aware of that.”

If the world rankings are any indication, the U.S. contingent in Beijing could be ready to counter recent history.

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