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.”
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.
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.”
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