SOCHI, Russia — Jordan Malone didn’t even have the energy to celebrate. Chris Creveling said he was “just in shock.” And for Eddy Alvarez, all of his muscles and all of his nerves felt like they unwound in an instant.
“It’s so relieving,” the 24-year-old short-track speedskater said. “I literally feel like I just came out of a spa.”
Celebration and relief can overlap when the pressure is ramped up, and it wasn’t clear whether the American speedskaters were more excited about nabbing a silver medal Friday night or whether dodging a shutout at these Winter Games was bigger cause for Olympic revelry.
The American speedskaters, who showed up here with so much promise and expectations, were just seconds away from going 0 for Sochi. In the last chance for U.S. Speedskating to score a medal, the men’s relay team managed to nab a silver in the 5,000-meter relay, tying a bow on an otherwise tumultuous and disappointing Winter Games.
“This is not really what we dreamt about how we would do, obviously,” said Stephen Gough, the U.S. short-track coach.
Americans had won 18 medals since short track made its debut at the 1992 Games, peaking four years ago in Vancouver when U.S. skaters captured six. Until Friday night’s relay, their best performance in eight events in Sochi was a pair of fourth-place finishes.
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
The problems were even worse on the long-track side. The men’s and women’s teams there were shut out completely, their worst showing since 1984. Combined, long- and short-track skating won 10 medals in Vancouver — more than a quarter of the medals Team USA took home — and will leave Russia with just one.
Both the men’s and women’s teams were eliminated in pursuit events Friday, their last chance for a medal here. Shani Davis, a four-time Olympic medalist who finished no better than eighth here, was not eager to race in a consolation heat Saturday.
“I hope that was my last race here,” he said. “This is something that’s going to stick with me for a long time. I’m a pretty resilient guy, been through a lot of stuff. This is going to be a tough one to kind of get over.”
While much of the initial criticism directed at the team seemed to focus on the high-tech suits Under Armour had specially engineered for Sochi, when skaters switched to older suits and still posted subpar results, coaches and athletes alike were left scrounging for answers. Seemingly absolving Under Armour of full responsibility for the team’s struggles, U.S. Speedskating announced a new eight-year agreement with the Baltimore-based sports apparel company that will run through the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“The length and scope of this agreement sends a strong signal about Under Armour’s commitment to our athletes and will best position them to skate with confidence and a competitive edge well into the future,” Mike Plant, the president of U.S. Speedskating, said in a statement.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
With attention no longer focused solely on the skin-tight Mach39 suit, U.S. Speedskating will look internally to understand its struggles. Gough, the short-track coach, seemed to indicate Friday night that the Americans’ lone Olympic medal was deserving of some scrutiny.
First, the men’s team barely reached the 5,000-meter relay final. Of the eight semifinal teams, the Americans posted the slowest time but advanced after judges ruled another skater had been impeded. The technicalities didn’t faze the U.S. team as it laced its skates.
“Our coach told us he’s just tired of seeing other countries celebrate out there rather than us,” Malone said. “We went into the last race knowing we were the last hope for a medal for speedskating. I told the guys, ‘We’re not going to let skating walk away without a medal.’ ”
In the final, skaters from China and the Netherlands took a tumble on the first turn, which meant the entirety of the event was essentially a two-nation race between Russia and the United States.
But Gough said that, according to the rules, officials should have restarted the race because the crash happened so early — before the fourth block on the ice. “I feel real bad,” he said.
The 45-lap race continued, though, and the United States was just a few strides behind the Russians until Creveling briefly took the lead with 15 laps remaining. But it was short-lived. The Russians regained the lead a couple of laps later and refused to let it go, posting an Olympic record time of 6 minutes 42.1 seconds — 0.271 ahead of the U.S. team — and winning gold.
The U.S. short-track team was understandably happy with its silver medal, quite the consolation prize for an Olympics that produced so much disappointment and unrest for a program that’s desperate for stability.
“It’s not that we aren’t champions. We just took the wrong way,” Malone said of the embattled program. “There’s more than one way to the top of a mountain. U.S. Speedskating just has to find a different way now.”
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