GANGNEUNG, South Korea —
“I’ve eaten too little too often, then I bonk. But I felt like I just had Thanksgiving out there,” Hansen said. “It sounds so stupid and it is so stupid, but I misgauged it. That’s how racing goes. You make mistakes like that. It’s hard to get it perfect every time.”
His teammate, Joey Mantia, admitted no problems with his caloric intake but nevertheless struggled, too. He entered the race as a legitimate medal threat, ranked third in the world over 1,500 meters. He came into the race thinking he could medal. But he felt off from the start. He never found his way, never challenged Dutchmen Kjeld Nuis and Patrick Roest for gold and silver, respectively, or South Korean Kim Min-seok for bronze in finishing eighth. Neither did his teammate, former silver medalist Shani Davis, who finished 19th.
“For me, it’s rolling the dice,” Mantia said. “And when it is [there], I’m capable of winning. And when it’s not there, I’m top 10, with the best. As stupid as it sounds, I just don’t know exactly what it takes to make a perfect race for long track — and I think a lot of people don’t. You see, the results are all over the place.”
Mantia had a point. The three men who climbed the podium after Tuesday’s race entered it ranked 15th, 30th, and 14th in the world, respectively. But the Dutch, who have already won three of the six men’s long-track medals issued at these Olympics, seem immune to ups and downs. Between the men’s and women’s races, they won 23 speedskating medals in Sochi in 2014. Through two men’s races and two women’s races here, they have already won eight medals out of a possible 12.
“I mean, they’re definitely beatable,” Hansen said. “We beat them at the World Cups all the time. But they put it together at the Olympics. I think it’s that simple.”
Simple on paper, yes. But as Hansen’s finicky fueling proves, dominance like that is anything but simple. From legend Sven Kramer, who won the 5,000-
meter race a few days ago, to Nuis and Roest, both first-time Olympians, Dutch skaters never seem to give an inch on this stage. Many of the Dutch skaters say their ability to perform here is because they can’t afford to give an inch to get here.
“We get that question all the time — what’s the deal with the people for the Netherlands winning all the medals?” Nuis said. “I think even getting here for us is a really big thing. We have to be 100 percent to even qualify.”
The Americans, like skaters from every other country in the world, have fewer skaters competing for the same number of spots — and therefore more margin for error in getting to the Games. Until Sochi, they had been able to keep up, to pepper themselves around Olympic podiums.
But they did not win a single long-track medal four years ago, something team members have called “a disaster” and chalked up to uncomfortable suits and ill-fitted training plans. They entered these Olympics confident they could break the drought, optimistic they would once again perform to their abilities. In two men’s and two women’s long-track races so far, they have yet to come close. Brittany Bowe’s fifth-place finish in the women’s 1,500 meters is their best finish yet.
“It’s very pressuring to put it all on the Olympic stage,” Hansen said. “The truth is there are so many races throughout the last four years to say, hey, Brittany is a multi-time world champion. Heather [Bergsma]. Look what Joey’s done. Shani in years past, and me, too, I think. Everybody’s staying positive.”
Davis admitted he is more focused on the 1,000-meter race anyway. Mantia is more focused on the mass start event, more comfortable in chaos than he is in time-trial formats. Hansen already has an Olympic medal in team pursuit and will be a part of that event again here. The medals could still come. Or one mistake could undo a race for any of them — meaning the difference between ending that medal drought and prolonging it could be as simple as portion control, a good first step or two, or something similar.
“The Olympics are tough like that,” said the 27-year-old Hansen, who plans to retire after these Olympics and will therefore have to chew on this result for quite some time. “You’ve only got one shot to prove it on such a big stage.”
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