The search continues for explanations as to why U.S. speedskaters are underperforming in the Olympics. No real answers were forthcoming Thursday night after Park City residents Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe finished seventh and eighth in the women's 1,000 meters.
The skaters who train in Kearns simply have not taken their game from the Great Salt Lake to the Black Sea, even while wearing the new suits that were designed to make them even faster.
Richardson and Bowe, roommates, training partners and supportive friends, unwittingly skated their way into a club with Shani Davis. After he produced a disappointing eighth-place finish in the men's 1,000 meters Wednesday, Richardson and Bowe ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world couldn't remotely challenge the winner, China's Zhang Hong. She skated in the seventh of 18 pairs and watched as her time of 1 minute, 14.02 seconds held up all night.
Maybe the only answer is for the Americans to invent new sports on the ice, considering how well that concept is working for them on the snow in these Games. Jumps and rails, perhaps?
For now, we're left with only a mysterious suggestion of what's lacking.
"We're obviously trying to evaluate the variables that could be there," said U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro, "but nothing that I'm going to go on record with. … We're halfway through the competition."
True, but conclusions have been drawn with far less evidence that what has transpired at Adler Arena, where the Americans' results have been surprisingly poor. The athletes say they're feeling fine and skating well, only the clock is saying otherwise. "When I looked up at the board," Bowe said, "I thought it was going to be a faster time."
She's not the only one. This was supposed to be the Olympiad, Richardson and Bowe were supposed to the skaters, and the 1,000 was supposed to be the race that altered recent history for the U.S. women, whose last Olympic speedskating medal came in Kearns in 2002.
It would have been a great story, how the former inline skaters broke through, four years after Richardson performed decently in her first Olympics in Vancouver. At the time, Bowe was watching at home in Florida, where she played college basketball, and she became inspired to move to the ice in Utah and pursue speedskating.
They've succeeded wildly up to now, which is where this stuff gets tricky. They were not unhappy with how they skated Thursday, but they certainly didn't live up to their world rankings.
Richardson's eyes widened when she stopped on the way to the locker room, sizing up a pack of media members. "Hi," she said good-naturedly, before expressing satisfaction with her performance. "There's not too much I can complain about. … Obviously, it's disappointing, but, yeah, it's all we could do."
She was fully willing to blame the opponents, saying, "Other countries are just getting really fast."
Of course, that rationalization is not fully satisfying. C'mon, there must be something.
Bowe's response to the first question was, "I don't think anything went wrong." She later cited "hundreds of variables … to try to pinpoint one thing is impossible."
Not the suits, the skaters insisted. Not the ice, Shimabukuro said. Not the low altitude, either. "Our team has produced on sea-level tracks … all over the world," he said.
One great performance for a U.S. speedskater in these Games is all it will take to redirect this conversation. Until then, the questions will keep coming.