SOCHI, Russia — The prospect of a medal shutout at the Olympic speedskating oval for the first time since 1984 grew more real for the U.S. on Sunday, as no American women managed to come near the podium in the 1,500 meters.
Heather Richardson had the best showing in Sunday’s race, skating her second-best time at sea level in 1 minute, 57.60 seconds to wind up seventh. Brittany Bowe ended up 14th and Jilleanne Rookard was 18th.
Meanwhile, the Dutch swept the medals in an event for the third time at Adler Arena, giving the skating-crazed nation 16 of 24 long-track speedskating medals so far at the Sochi Games.
As did the men a day earlier, the U.S. women switched back to the skinsuits they wore during the World Cup season, ditching the new Mach 39 suits that were touted as the fastest in the world when the team received them on Jan. 1. Both versions are made by Under Armour.
The Americans didn’t practice or race in the new suits until they arrived in Sochi. Although they first saw the suits after the U.S. trials last month, they didn’t get them back again until the pre-Olympic training camp in Collabo, Italy, after individual tailoring had been completed.
”I think you guys are making more of a deal on the skinsuits than we are,” said U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukro. ”The athletes have to go and compete no matter what. The suits that they raced in today, that’s the suit Brittany broke the world record in, that’s the suit that Heather won three out of the four World Cups this year.”
Shani Davis said the skaters ”absolutely” should have gotten the new suits before Jan. 1 so they could have tried them out in competition. The four-time Olympic medalist from Chicago finished eighth in the 1,000 and 11th in the 1,500, his two best events.
Shimabukro acknowledged the delivery of the suits so close to the Olympics was ”probably one of the things that we’re going to look at after the season’s over.”
Bowe downplayed the suit controversy.
”The coaching staff and Under Armour have put in a lot of hours trying to figure out what to do,” she said. ”Nobody knows what it is. It could be this, it could be that. That’s just one factor to try to eliminate and you saw the results today. We gave it our best shot.”
Bowe, of Ocala, Fla., had no interest in comparing how she felt wearing the old suit and the new suit.
”I’m not the brains behind the construction of the skinsuits,” she said. ”I just put on what I’m given.”
Tension has clearly been running high in the U.S. camp, with some of the skaters carefully choosing their words when talking about the suits.
On Saturday, media were limited to five questions about the suits. On Sunday, Bowe was hustled away from U.S. reporters after a few minutes. That led to a surreal scene in the mixed zone at the oval, with reporters accusing the team’s spokeswoman of cutting Bowe off.
Richardson, of High Point, N.C., tried to be upbeat after the 1,500. She had the same seventh-place finish in the 1,000 and was eighth in the 500.
”Today was actually pretty good. I can’t complain at all,” she said. ”I was so much more relaxed than I’ve been at any point during this competition.”
Richardson has been the best U.S. woman in Sochi, with three top-10 finishes. Bowe was eighth in the 1,000 and 13th in the 500. Rookard, of Woodhaven, Mich., was 10th in the 3,000 in her only other individual event.
Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill., had a pair of top-10 finishes on the men’s side: seventh in the 1,500 and ninth in the 1,000.
Four years ago in Vancouver, U.S. speedskaters won four medals, all on the men’s side. The women are headed toward getting blanked for the third straight Olympics, not having won any medals since taking three at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
”We’re not going to do a full analysis. It’s too emotional. It’s too in-the-moment,” Shimabukro said. ”To do a specific analysis, you got to do it with a clear head and an open heart. Now is not the time.”
Shimabukro said the way to try to change the team’s sinking momentum was to stay consistent in its preparation.
”The worst thing you can do is all of a sudden start throwing darts,” he said. ”You want to make sure you stick with the recipe that has gotten them to where they were and where they want to be. It could just be the perfect storm right now that’s going the other way for us.”
Even before the suit debacle, the U.S. had little chance of contending for medals in the last two individual events: the men’s 10,000 and women’s 5,000.
With no American finishing higher than seventh so far, it’s hard to see how the U.S. could put together a medal contender in either the men’s or women’s team pursuit, either.
The U.S. has been shut out in Olympic speedskating twice, most recently in 1984.
”When we fall short, it’s very tough,” Shimabukro said.