GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Little by little, race by race, the U.S. speedskating team started sliding toward bad memories. Their medal-free debacle in Sochi four years ago had left the Americans embarrassed and determined. But until Wednesday, with just a few events to go, they hadn’t won any medals at the PyeongChang Olympics, either. Combined, the U.S. men and women had gone 23 Olympic long-track races without a medal, a streak that dated from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Then, in the one race the U.S. women seemed least likely to take, that medal came — bronze in the team pursuit Wednesday — their first since the inception of the event in 2006.
“It really means a lot. I’m super proud to share this moment with these girls and the girls of U.S. speedskating,” U.S. team member Heather Bergsma said. “Finally.”
The U.S. women didn’t even initially qualify a team for the event, finishing ninth. Only the top eight make it. Then the International Olympic Committee excluded the Russians. The Americans got bumped into contention.
They started practicing a few days before the race, and while it might look like skating in a straight line shouldn’t need much honing, strategy looms large. Teams must decide how often to switch their slowest skater into the lead, how and when to position themselves, and other strategies. The four Americans on the team — Bergsma, Brittany Bowe, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens — hadn’t had much time to figure it all out.
That they even qualified for the semifinals constituted a surprise. Then they drew the mighty Netherlands in the first semifinal. Instead of racing Bowe, who finished fourth, fifth and fifth in her three individual events here, they sat her for the semifinal and raced Schoutens instead. Against the Netherlands, even a Bowe-led team probably wouldn’t have fared well. So the Americans decided not to fight for a spot in the gold medal race but to give themselves their best chance at bronze.
The strategy paid off. Bowe was fresh for the final race against Canada and helped the Americans open a 3.5-second lead by the midway point. All along, the plan had been for Bowe and Bergsma to get them a lead and for Manganello to hold it. She took over with 2 1 /2 laps to go. With a race already on her legs, she started to tire. She called for help. Contact is allowed in team pursuit, so Bergsma pushed Bowe and Bowe pushed Manganello. By the last two laps, the lead was less than a second. Around the last turn, tired legs nearly tripped the trio into a disastrous fall.
But they stayed up, on their feet and on the clock, and finished less than a half-second ahead of the Canadians for bronze. Bowe and Bergsma and Manganello linked arms. Eventually, they skated to Schoutens and carried the flag around together. The U.S. team finally had its medal.
The race ensured Bowe, 29, who had skated well enough to win a medal here in the individual events, finally would do so. She came in fourth, tenths of a second off the podium in the 1,000 meters. She finished fifth in the 500 and 1,500 meters, two very different races that attest to elite sprinting and stamina abilities.
“Even though I came up short here many times,” Bowe said, “I just remain really grateful for the opportunity to be on that start line.”