Under Armour switch can't help speedskaters
The US Olympic team continues to struggle even after dumping the company's new 'Mach 39' skinsuit.
U.S. long-track speedskating's Sochi slide was nearly complete Sunday, as American skaters Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe failed to medal in the women's 1,500 meters and left Team U.S.A. facing the likelihood of going home empty-handed in individual races.
The nose dive of a team stocked with medal favorites like Richardson and men's star Shani Davis comes amid a distracting controversy over a new Under Armour (UA) racing suit that was abandoned after athletes complained about it in their earlier races here.
But like the U.S. men on Saturday, a wardrobe change that brought back an earlier suit failed to propel the female skaters onto the podium.
Instead, a trio of women from the Netherlands swept the event. Jorien ter Mors won the gold medal with an Olympic-record time of 1:53.51, with Ireen Wust in second at 1:54.09 and Lotte van Beek in third at 1:54.54.
The Dutch have now won 16 of a possible 24 medals through eight men's and women's long-track events.
The poor showings Sunday of Richardson and Bowe -- who finished seventh and 14th respectively on Sunday -- leaves the U.S. struggling to explain a Games gone bad. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. won four speedskating medals, including one gold.
"We had some of the highest expectations of all of the teams," said U.S. long-track coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "When we fall so short, it's very tough." Two individual long-track events remain, but the U.S. isn't considered a medal threat in either.
He said the deconstruction of what went wrong would wait until later. Right now, "it's too emotional, it's too in the moment," Shimabukuro said. "You've got to do it with a clear head and an open heart." He added: "Maybe they got distracted, maybe they didn't," Shimabukuro said.
The U.S. team has been roiled in recent days by the flap over a new high-tech skinsuit -- dubbed Mach 39 -- that was designed for the team by Under Armour. The suit was first delivered to the U.S. team for fittings in Salt Lake City on Jan. 1.
But Shimabukuro said Sunday that the athletes didn't receive the suit for practice purposes until they arrived at a pre-Olympics training camp in Italy. That camp opened on Jan. 22 -- just 18 days before the first long-track events in Sochi.
Complaints about the Mach 39 didn't surface within the team, however, until they were worn for competition for the first time at the Sochi Olympics in the middle of last week. Alarms went off after U.S. skating stars like Shani Davis and Richardson failed to medal in early races they were favored to win. The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday that some athletes suspected that the vents on the back of the suit created a drag that diminished performance.
After a hurried internal debate, the team reverted to an older Under Armour suit that has been worn in previous competitions in which American skaters prevailed. But the old suit didn't change the outcome on Saturday for Davis and teammate Brian Hansen, who failed to medal in the men's 1,500 meters. Afterward, the debate about the suit broadened to include questions about the U.S. team's training program. Some athletes said the noisy debate about the suit had knocked them off their games.
On Sunday, it was the U.S. women's turn to see whether they could overcome the cacophony. It didn't go well.
With ter Mors' record-setting race already in the book, Richardson started promisingly but lost ground in each of her heat's four laps. Looking labored in the home stretch, she crossed the finish line at 1:57.60 -- a race that was good enough for third at the time. But she lost her place on the medal stand moments later.
Bowe also started strong but fell far off the pace in the second lap. She finished at 1:58.31.
Both women were tight-lipped about the team's problems and the internal debate over whether the suits, its training regimen or anything else was to blame for their performance.
"There could be a million different factors into the performance," Bowe said Sunday. "Obviously, it's unfortunate. No one wants to be in the position we're in. But we're here and we're doing what we can with it."
That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, though.
"I went home and cried forever about the 1,000 but I have to let go at some point," Richardson said of her failure to medal in an earlier race. She added: "Since the women still haven't gotten a medal, that's what we're going to be training four more years for."
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