SOCHI, Russia — Zhang Hong put up an early time that no one could beat.
Certainly not the Americans, who can’t get up to speed at the Sochi Olympics.
While Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe were the latest U.S. heavyweights to flame out, Zhang gave China its first speedskating gold medal ever with a stunning victory in the women’s 1,000 meters Thursday.
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The winning time of 1 minutes, 14.02 seconds was nearly seven-10ths faster than anyone else — a huge margin in this event.
"I saw the time pop up and was thinking `This is amazingly fast,’" silver medalist Ireen Wust said. "I had never done a 1:15 at sea level."
Zhang, who had not done much on the World Cup circuit this season, skated in the seventh of 18 pairs based on her middling results. But her time broke the track record and just missed the Olympic mark set by Chris Witty at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Wust took the silver in 1:14.69, while Margot Boer earned bronze in 1:14.90.
Zhang’s winning margin — 0.67 — was the largest in the women’s 1,000 since Bonnie Blair’s runaway victory at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. In fact, it was larger than the last four Olympic races combined.
Beyond Boer, no one else was within a second of the winning time.
Taking a while to get up to speed, Zhang’s time over the first 200 meters, a half lap, was only the 10th-fastest of the day. But her second lap was quicker than anyone else, and she was really rolling the last time around the oval, covering the distance in 28.99. Only six other skaters broke the 30-second barrier on their final lap.
"She is known as the lady of the fastest lap," Wust said.
Many fans didn’t even see the gold-medal performance, drifting in late to Adler Arena since the supposed big guns were all set to go in the second half of the session. Zhang was merely a spectator after the ice was resurfaced at the midway point, but her smile kept getting bigger as no one came close to beating her time.
"I was very nervous, very excited waiting for the last pair," she said. "I did my best. The final result didn’t matter."
While the Dutch ran their Sochi speedskating medal haul to 12, just one away from tying the best Olympic performance ever on the big oval, the Americans have yet to win even one.
Richardson came in ranked No. 1 in the World Cup standings, just ahead of her teammate Bowe, who set a world record in the 1,000 on the high-altitude ice at Salt Lake City just three months ago.
Richardson was briefly in third place, but knew her time was unlikely to hold up with three pairings left; she wound up seventh in 1:15.23. Bowe went in the next-to-last last group and faded badly over the final lap, winding up eighth in 1.15.47 — nearly 1 seconds off the winning time.
"I’m at a loss for words right now," U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukro said. "For whatever reason right now, we are getting skunked."
While few people touted Zhang as a medal contender, her second-place finish at last month’s world sprint championships — even with many of the top skaters choosing not to compete — showed she was in good form coming into Sochi.
Zhang nearly pulled out a medal in the 500, again skating from an early group that signifies a lower-ranked skater. She led through much of the opening round, but went slower in the second heat and finished fourth, missing a bronze by a tenth of a second.
Now, she’s got something even better.
The Dutch settled for the next two spots on the podium, keeping up a staggering performance that has them on the cusp of breaking the previous record for most speedskating medals by a country at a single Olympics — East Germany’s 13-medal showing at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Wust added to her gold in the 3,000 and now has five career medals. Boer picked up her second bronze of the Sochi Olympics, also finishing third in the 500.
Prior to these Winter Games, China had claimed six medals on the big oval — three silvers and three bronzes, including Wang Beixing’s third-place finish in the women’s 500 at Vancouver four years ago.
Finally, there’s a gold on the Chinese resume.
At this point, the Americans would settle for a medal of any color. The last two days have seen some of their biggest names go down, starting with two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis’ shocking eighth-place showing in the men’s 1,000. Then it was Richardson and Bowe, who had made the podium in all four World Cup meets this season.
But something clearly went wrong in the lead-up to Sochi, where the Americans haven’t come close to a medal in the first six events.
Richardson’s seventh-place showing Thursday was, in fact, the best U.S. performance so far at Adler Arena.