SOCHI, Russia — Shani Davis wasn’t worried when Stefan Groothuis vaulted into the lead Wednesday at Sochi’s Adler Arena. As the world record holder and two-time defending Olympic champion of speedskating’s 1,000 meters, Davis had plenty of reason to believe that however fast the Dutchman — or any of his rivals — went, he could go faster.
But after bolting to a lightning-quick start, the 31-year-old Davis lagged nearly fourth-tenths of a second off the pace after the first of two-and-a-half laps around the 400-meter oval. As hard as he battled to close the gap, Davis couldn’t summon the speed he needed.
Poised to become the first male speedskater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics, Davis could do no better than eighth. With it, he joined a growing list of high profile U.S. gold medal favorites to miss the medal podium entirely at the Sochi Games.
On Saturday, 36-year-old Bode Miller seemed a lock for gold in the men’s downhill, having won two of the three training sessions. But instead of making history as the oldest Olympic champion in an Alpine event, Miller nicked a gate on a hazy race-day and finished eighth.
And Monday, Shaun White, 27, the odds-on-favorite to win a third consecutive gold in snowboarding’s halfpipe, stumbled instead, finishing fourth.
To be sure, the first five days of the Winter Games have seen a handful of fresh-faced American stars emerge. Kaitlyn Farrington, who won gold in the women’s halfpipe Wednesday, was the latest. But her achievement brought the United States’ gold medal tally to just three — all earned by first-time Olympians and all earned in snowboarding.
Among the early disappointments, Davis’s eighth-place finish in the 1,000 meters might have been the biggest stunner.
Reared on Chicago’s South Side, Davis made history at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where he became the first African American athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games with his 1,000-meter triumph. He successfully defended his title at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, while winning three world single-distance titles at the 1,000.
Though a two-time silver medalist and world record holder in the 1,500 meters, as well, Davis considers the 1,000 “his baby.”
Davis wasn’t particularly impressive in Monday’s 500, the shortest of speedskating’s long-track events, in which he finished 24th. But he typically uses the distance as a training session to gird for the 1,000, so it was easy to dismiss as having little bearing.
And despite the Dutch team’s dominant showing at Adler Arena, where the majority of the venue’s seats are shades of orange as if in tribute, Groothuis said he was far from confident after moving into the lead in Wednesday’s race, given that eight skaters had yet to compete — Davis among them.
“I was really nervous,” Groothuis said. “I thought, ‘Shani is going to get it.’ It was extremely nerve-wrecking.”
With a medal of any color, Davis would have tied Eric Heiden and Chad Hedrick for the most Olympic speedskating medals (five) by an American man. He fell short, though he will get a chance again in Saturday’s 1,500.
Davis’s struggles in Sochi are part of a larger story about U.S. Speedskating’s slow start at the 2014 Olympics Games.
The United States has yet to win a medal in five long-track events contested so far, while the Dutch have won 10, including sweeps of the men’s 5,000 meters, men’s 500 meters and Wednesday’s gold and bronze in the 1,000 meters.
Groothuis (1 minute 8.39 seconds) took gold. Three-time Olympian Denny Morrison of Canada won silver (1:08.43), having been given his spot by teammate Gilmore Junio, who bowed out so his stronger countryman could compete after being relegated to an alternate when he fell during qualifying. And Michel Mulder, the Dutch victor of the 500 meters, took bronze.
“They’re the strongest right now,” Davis said of the Dutch, with admiration, “so we’ve got to figure it out.”
Equally perplexed was Davis’s teammate, Brian Hansen, 23, of Evanston, Ill., who finished ninth (1:09.21)
“I thought we were on top of the world here; things were looking great,” Hansen said, reeling off a half-dozen U.S. long-track speedskaters who arrived in Sochi on the heels of strong World Cup seasons — none of whom have reached the podium. “There hasn’t been any luck with the U.S.”
Some European journalists who follow speedskating intently have suggested the U.S. erred in the run-up to Sochi by holding its speedskating trials and much of its training in the mountain climates of Park City, Utah, rather than a lower elevation akin to the seaside air of Sochi.
“You could always say what could have been in retrospect,” Davis said. “But looking forward, we just weren’t fast enough today. Other people were. We weren’t. And now it’s time for me to try to figure out the mistakes I did and apply them for the 1,500.”