US seems to be skating in mud at speedskating oval

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — More than an hour after the latest disappointment at Adler Arena, the bigwigs of U.S. speedskating huddled glumly in the empty stands, talking urgently among themselves, trying to figure out what to do now.

This team came to the Sochi Olympics with such high hopes.

So far, it looks like they’re skating in mud.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Ryan Shimabukuro, head coach of the American sprinters. “For whatever reason right now, we are getting skunked.”

While Zhang Hong gave China its first gold medal ever in speedskating Thursday, and the Dutch added two more medals to what will surely be a record-breaking haul, the Americans are still seeking a medal of any color.

The way things are going, the third shutout in the history of the storied U.S. program seems very, very possible.

“We’ve all prepared as much as we could,” said Heather Richardson, who failed to make the podium in her two top events. “We gave it our best.”

At least the Americans don’t have to worry about another flameout Friday — it’s an off day at the oval.

Unless things change dramatically, it’s hard to envision anyone making the podium over the next week.

Sure, Shani Davis is a two-time silver medalist in the 1,500, but he struggled to an eighth-place showing in the 1,000, an event he won at the last two Olympics.

Brittany Bowe had done well on the World Cup circuit in the women’s 1,500. Then again, she’s the world-record holder in the 1,000 — and finished eighth in that event on Thursday, one spot behind teammate Richardson.

Richardson was the top-ranked skater in the 1,000, winning three of four World Cup races this season (with Bowe taking the other), but she finished more than a second off Zhang’s winning time of 1 minutes, 14.02 seconds.

“You’ve got to just take it for what it is,” Bowe said. “Obviously we haven’t had the outcomes that we had wanted or predicted, but that’s the games. We still have a long way to go.”

The Americans came into Sochi with 29 speedskating golds — more than any other country — and 67 medals overall, the most of any U.S. Winter Olympics program.

The only times the U.S. failed to win a speedskating medal were in 1984 at Sarajevo and the 1956 Games, where there were just four men’s races.

This team thought it had a chance to do something special, given some impressive World Cup results this season and new high-tech suits from Under Armour, which got an assist in the design from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Now, there’s plenty of grumbling that the suits are actually slowing the skaters down in Sochi.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Shimabukuro said. “We have to race in the suits.”

Through six of 12 events, the Americans haven’t finished better than Richardson’s seventh-place showing in the 1,000.

“I’m obviously disappointed,” said Bowe, a former inline skater and college basketball player who quickly made the adjustment to ice. “It is my first Olympics, but I came here wanting to get a podium finish in that particular race. I didn’t, but all is good. I left it all out there on the track.”

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. Her time broke the track record and just missed the Olympic mark set by Chris Witty at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

“She hasn’t had a podium finish yet this year,” Bowe said. “That’s what the Olympics are all about.”

Many fans didn’t even see the gold-medal performance, drifting in late 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.

The Netherlands took the other two spots on the podium, with Ireen Wust winning silver and Margot Boer the bronze.

The Flying Dutch ran their medal haul to 12 and are 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.

Appropriately, most of the seats at Adler Arena are orange, the color of the Dutch team.

That’s where the American officials and coaches sat Thursday night, trying to sort out if there’s any hope left for these games.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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