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Olympics

Mass-start speedskating debut yields gold for hosts, more disappointment for U.S.

February 24, 2018 at 10:45 AM

Joey Mantia leads the pack during a semifinal race. (Kimimasa Mayama/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/Kimimasa Mayama/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There is a classic beauty to speedskating, reflected in the grace of competitors as they glide around the oval, transferring their weight from one leg to the other in steady, controlled rhythm.

Imagine taking this tradition-steeped sport, scrambling its rules and revamping its format for maximum mayhem. The result would look a lot like the mass start event that made its Olympic debut Saturday at the Gangneung Oval: speedskating spiced with a touch of Tour de France, Formula One and NASCAR.

Given his background in inline skating, in which thriving amid chaos is an essential survival skill, U.S. speedskating’s Joey Mantia figured to be a strong contender. But for a second consecutive night, he fell just short of the podium and leaves his second Winter Olympics without a medal and plenty of “what ifs” about preparation and luck.

“It’s the woulda, shoulda, coulda, where you analyze what happened and what you can do moving forward,” said Mantia, who was fourth across the finish but officially ended up ninth based on the event’s complicated scoring system. “I was a little tired after the [semifinal] and tried to play safe. Three laps in tried to push, and my legs cramped. I just didn’t have it. I felt okay, felt really good before.”

Related: [Barry Svrluga: Four more years? Olympians confront life after the Olympics.]

South Korea’s Lee Seung-Hoon was the wildly popular gold medal winner. Belgium’s Bart Swings took silver, and Koen Verweij of the Netherlands earned the bronze.

In the women’s event, neither Heather Bergsma nor Mia Manganello added to the bronze each American won in the team pursuit. Bergsma finished 11th in the mass start, while Manganello, who provided drafting help much of the race, was 15th.

Japan’s Nana Takagi won gold. South Korea’s Kim Bo-Reum, the reigning world champion, took silver. Irene Schouten of the Netherlands got the bronze.

Contested at the 8,000-seat Gangneung Oval, the mass start was the final speedskating event of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. With it, U.S. Speedskating concluded a slightly improved but ultimately disappointing Winter Games, earning just two medals: bronze in women’s team pursuit and John-Henry Krueger’s silver in the men’s 1,000-meter short-track event.

Max Parrot of Canada competes in the snowboard big air finals.
Athletes compete during a semifinal of the women’s mass start speedskating event.
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 24: Athletes compete during the Ladies' Speed Skating Mass Start Semifinal 1 on day 15 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Oval on February 24, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Edson Bindilatti, Odirlei Pessoni, Edson Ricardo Martins and Rafael Souza da Silva of Brazil compete in the four-man bobsled.
Skip John Shuster of the United States, center, calls out instructions during the gold medal curling match against Sweden. The Americans won.
Oskars Melbardis, Daumants Dreiskens, Arvis Vilkaste and Janis Strenga of Latvia are seen during the four-man bobsled competition.
Iivo Niskanen of Finland leads the pack during the men’s 50-kilometer mass start cross-country classic.
Nevin Galmarini of Switzerland competes during a men’s snowboard parallel giant slalom quarterfinal.
Carlos Garcia Knight of New Zealand crashes during the men’s big air snowboard competition.
Kyle Mack of the United States competes in the big air finals. Mack won the silver.
Zan Kosir of Slovenia and Kim Sang-kyum of Korea compete during the men’s snowboard parallel giant slalom quarterfinal.
Photo Gallery: Day 16 of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Still, the performance here wasn’t as desultory at the 2014 Sochi Games, in which no U.S. long-track speedskater won a medal and the Americans earned only short-track silver.

Guy Thibault, the U.S. high performance director, said he drew encouragement from the results in PyeongChang.

“Yes, we missed a few” medal chances, Thibault said. “But everybody came here to skate their best. The results [Friday in the men’s 1,000 meters] were actually impressive. We missed the podium again, but three guys skated their best of their season.”

Mantia finished fourth in the 1,000 meters; Shani Davis was seventh and Mitchell Whitmore 10th.

“I have to be pleased with where we are,” Thibault said. “Could we get more [medals]? Yes. We’re going to need to look at how can we make those more medals next time — or gold medals next time.”

Thibault said he felt U.S. Speedskating had made strides since Sochi, where American skaters blamed their struggles on friction with the sport’s administration, an ill-advised decision to train at altitude for a sea-level competition and futuristic Under Armour racing suits introduced at the last minute with which they weren’t familiar.

“All in all, our vibe was just better,” Mantia said of this Olympic experience. “We went back and looked at all the things that were wrong. . . . Every factor we thought was limiting in Sochi, we changed.”

Mantia entered Saturday’s mass start as the event’s reigning world champion and a favorite. And his strategy was to conserve his energy early so he would be fresh for a medal charge at the end.

The Olympic mass start event begins with 24 skaters divided into two semifinals. The top eight finishers in each advance to the 16-skater final.

The race format tests endurance and explosiveness. Both the semifinal and final are 16 laps, amounting to 6,400 meters. After three, half-tempo, largely single-file laps, skaters start dicing for position. A bell clangs on Lap 4, and skaters burst into the first of four sprints that start on Laps 4, 8 and 12 and heading into the finish.

Tactically, almost anything goes: Skaters can push, pull or nudge one another to get to the front.

In Mantia’s case, he dropped toward the rear of the 16-man pack in the early going. He inched up to 10th on Lap 10. Then, with three to go, he made his move. But instead of firing, his leg muscles cramped.

“One more spot up, and I could have had a medal,” Mantia said. “For me, personally, I didn’t do the right things for this race.”

Read more Post coverage of the PyeongChang Olympics:

Barry Svrluga: John Shuster was leveled by the sport he loved. Then he got back up, and won gold.

Jerry Brewer: Ester Ledecka is the greatest Olympian at the Games, even if she doesn’t know it

IOC faces resistance as it considers lifting Russian doping ban

Vic Wild, born in U.S. but snowboarding for Russians, rips various Olympic entities

American Devin Logan leaves PyeongChang bruised but still a badass

In four-man bobsled, Americans miss Steve Holcomb, on and off the track

North Korean defectors present a different face at Olympics


Liz Clarke is on her second stint covering the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post (1998-2001; 2014 onward). Before joining The Post in 1998, she was a sportswriter at USA Today, the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer. She started her career as a news reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, covering higher education.

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