- Wayne Drehs
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SOCHI, Russia -- Less than 24 hours after reverting to an older racing suit, the shocking struggles of the U.S. speedskating team continued Saturday night, prompting one U.S. coach to criticize the team's pre-Olympic preparations.
Nancy Swider-Peltz, a four-time Olympian, member of the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame and skater Brian Hansen's coach, nearly broke down in tears after Hansen and teammate Shani Davis were again kept off the podium in Saturday's 1,500-meter "Race of Kings."
Swider-Peltz suggested there were numerous factors contributing to the American struggles, including the drama surrounding whether or not to switch racing suits. But she kept her harshest words for the team's pre-Olympic training camp in Collalbo, Italy.
"Callalbo was a big mistake," she said.
Especially for Hansen, who normally trains in Milwaukee. Going from sea level to altitude and back down to sea level to compete in Sochi concerned Swider-Peltz leading up to the Games. She voiced her concerns to U.S. speedskating officials but was told the decision had been made. She kept her frustrations quiet until Saturday when she finally decided she had enough.
"I fought tooth and nail," she said. "I fought for days. I wrote emails. I cried. I went crazy. I did not want to go there. I'm going to get in trouble for saying this. But I don't care anymore. I'm tired of not being believed. I'm tired of being told that science is the only answer and intuition and experience isn't enough. I have tools and I can't have my tools taken away from me. I need to do what I wanted to do. I had my hands tied."
Messages left for U.S. Speedskating president Ted Morris were not immediately returned. In response to questions about the team's struggles, Morris told USA Today earlier Saturday, "This is on U.S. Speedskating." He added, "We're all a bit stunned. We are doing everything in our power to turn that around."
Swider-Peltz's criticisms were just the latest explanation as to how it could be that one of the strongest speedskating teams in the world has failed to medal in 21 events thus far. On Wednesday night, Davis came into the 1,000-meter race the overwhelming gold-medal favorite. He finished eighth. The next night, two of the top-ranked female skaters in the world, Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson, finished 7th and 8th in the women's 1,000 meters. They had combined to win every 1,000-meter race this season.
Those struggles prompted talk that perhaps the Americans' new high-tech skin suits from Under Armour were to blame. The apparel company had worked with aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin to develop a suit it promised would provide unprecedented results. But instead of setting any records, U.S. speedskating is in danger of not winning a single medal for the first time since Sarajevo in 1984.
In the 36 hours leading up to Saturday's 1,500, team officials, coaches and representatives from Under Armour met to determine what could possibly be done. On Friday night, Davis and Hansen said the skaters voted to revert back to the previous Under Armour suit they had worn during World Cup competition. But on Saturday the results were similarly disappointing.
Davis entered the race with the fastest 1,500 time in the world this year. He finished 11th. Hansen, who said his own personal tactics failed him, finished 7th. Afterward, both racers suggested the chaos of the day and a half leading up to the race had been a challenge to overcome. Hansen said the team did not receive the new suits until Saturday morning.
"It was a little tough to focus on what I was doing," he said. "The worries about everything going on around the skin suit. The coaches, the media, the Under Armour, all of that."
Davis reiterated those concerns.
"There was just too many factors going on and energy," Davis said. "The energy was really bad. I try to do the best I can. But it was just so many things going on, what's going on with this? What's going on with that? What's going on here? I really try not to make excuses but I think if we could have eliminated all those distractions, it would have been a totally different outcome."
Both racers were critical of the decision not to test the suits in competition prior to the Olympics. Under Armour tested the suits with several skaters - including Davis. But the suits were not formally delivered to the team until January. And not until Sochi were they worn in competition, a tactic that was designed to keep other countries from seeing the new suits and copying the technology before Sochi.
"The Olympics happens once every four years," Davis said. "World Cups are all the time. You have a bad performance at a World Cup because of a suit, that's fine. You can't do that at the Olympics. There's too much riding on it. You can't do that."
Added Swider-Peltz: "You don't throw a kitchen sink of stuff at any kid before the Olympics. Is it the suits? Is it not the suits? That stuff is going to play on your mind and should not be a factor in an Olympic year. I know they did experimentation in a wind tunnel but it should have been tried sooner."
The plight of the Americans has been comical for some. After Saturday's 1,500, one international journalist joked, "Those old suits really helped, huh?" After a chuckle, another international writer replied, "Americans always peak at the best moment. This is so odd." Which is exactly why there are so many questions. Even Davis himself, now three days removed from his shocking loss in the 1,000 meters, was still looking for answers in that race, not to mention his disappointment here Saturday.
"I know in my heart I'm the king of the 1,000 and when I come across the line and I'm eighth." He said. "It was hard to come back from that loss. I don't know. We will have to test the suit against other suits to see if it really made that much of a difference.
"I don't like making excuses but if I'm opening up 16.6, the best opener of my life, I know how to skate a lap to match that. I know that I have two laps to do it in. I'm well-conditioned enough to do that and that day I wasn't able to do it and I was eighth."
Sunday will present Morris and the rest of the U.S. Speedskating Federation another opportunity for redemption or disaster when Richardson and Bowe return to the ice for the women's 1,500. As for Davis, he planned on taking a few days away from the ice before potentially returning to compete in the Team Pursuit next week.
"I need at least one day's rest, I think." he said.
The U.S. speedskating team came into Sochi with high expectations, but amid questions and confusion about racing suits and pre-Olympics preparation, they are still looking for their first medal.