Olympic hopefuls starting from scratch at U.S. speedskating trials

Everyone is starting from scratch at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials.

It doesn’t matter if you’re two-time gold medalist Shani Davis or an obscure long shot – you have to earn your way onto the American team that will be in Sochi.

U.S. Speedskating officials are hoping the new format will lead to more interest in the trials, which begin Friday at the Olympic oval in suburban Salt Lake City.

For the athletes and coaches, it raises the anxiety level.

"I’m not a fan of the fact that our top skaters weren’t able to prequalify based on their World Cup results," said national sprint team coach Ryan Shimabukuro, referring to the system used during previous Olympic cycles. "A lot of those decisions were based on television coverage. But that makes it very difficult for us. We have a very hard travel schedule. When you get to this time of year, you want to protect your medal contenders."

The trials in Kearns, Utah – site of speedskating during the 2002 Winter Games – will decide which U.S. skaters fill the Olympic spots.

"It’s a tough qualification system for us," Shimabukuro said. "The trials will be pretty stressful for most competitors. But when the results are all in, we’ll be ready to take on the world in Sochi."

The long-track trials will be held over five days (with an off day Monday), followed immediately by the U.S. short track trials on the infield rink at the same facility, a four-day meet that ends Jan. 5.

The U.S. short track program is rebuilding after the retirements of 2010 stars Apolo Anton Ohno and Katherine Reutter, as well as scandals and strife that led to a major overhaul of the national governing body.

But the traditional speedskating team, with medal contenders such as Davis, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, should be one of the top countries in Sochi, continuing the strong U.S. tradition on the big oval.

Start with Davis, who won gold in the 1,000 meters and silver in the 1,500 at each of the last two Olympics. He leads the World Cup standings in both events heading into the trials, but hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was before the Vancouver Games four years ago.

Shimabukuro said that’s by design. It’s all about peaking at the right time.

"Shani has taken a little different approach than he took in 2010," the coach said. "Though he has skated well in the fall, he’s not won every race. It’s all about timing. When you’re building toward the games, sometimes it’s hard to hold on to that top form. So he’s changed his strategy a little bit. But he’s hungrier than ever."

On the women’s side, the Americans have a pair of former inline skaters who are favored to claim medals in Russia.

Richardson leads the World Cup standings in the 1,000, just ahead of her teammate. Bowe is ranked No. 1 in the 1,500, while Richardson holds down the second spot in the 500 behind South Korea’s Sang-Hwa Lee.

A native of North Carolina, Richardson has been building for this moment ever since she posted a pair of top-10 finishes in Vancouver. Bowe, who was born in Ocala, Fla., only took up the sport after the last Olympics but quickly became one of the world’s best on blades instead of wheels.

"Both want to become Olympic champions," Shimabukuro said. "They’re pushing each other as well as other members of the sprint team. A lot of our success is due to our team working very well together and being very supportive of each other. Heather is going into these games with one Olympics under her belt. She knows what to expect."

It’s different for Bowe, who is also a former college basketball point guard.

"She’s been on the fast track in her career," Shimabukuro said. "This is only her fourth season on ice and her third season skating internationally. It’s been a meteoric rise to the top of the speedskating world."

Also keep an eye on Joey Mantia, another former inliner from Florida who switched to ice just three years ago. This month, he pulled off a stunning victory in the 1,500 during the World Cup meet in Berlin.

"For the first time since I switched over from inlines, I felt like I was in good control of my skates and able to execute a solid race plan exactly how I anticipated," Mantia said. "I’m going to keep pounding the technical process and do everything I can to prepare for trials and hopefully the Olympics."