Coming off one of its worst performances at the Olympics, U.S. Speedskating conducted a self-assessment and vowed major changes looking toward the 2018 Winter Games.
Executive director Ted Morris said the evaluation confirmed most of the issues that were already suspected after the Americans failed to finish higher than sixth in a long-track event at Sochi, including overtraining, too much emphasis on World Cup events, a lack of familiarity with new high-tech suits and the decision to hold a pre-Olympic camp at a frigid outdoor rink in Italy.
Looking toward Pyeongchang, Morris vowed there will be improvements in the way data is collected and analyzed, more focus on the biggest events each year and an extensive annual review to make sure the program is on the right track.
"We're going to pick ourselves up and get back up there four years from now," Morris said. "Our goal is to rewrite this story in Korea."
The U.S. went to Sochi with hopes of winning its most medals ever, which Morris now concedes was a totally unrealistic goal that perhaps put too much pressure on the athletes. The best showing from four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis was eighth. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, the best female skaters, didn't come close to a medal, either.
Morris said Richardson and Bowe were especially affected by the outdoor training in Italy, being former inliners from North Carolina and Florida, respectively, who didn't adjust well to the freezing temperatures and wind.
The Olympic performance was especially disappointing given the speedskating program has won more medals than any other U.S. winter sport and had not missed the podium at the Winter Games since 1984.
"We had the best World Cup season in the history of the organization," Morris said. "But we didn't play well in the Super Bowl. Hopefully we've learned from that and next time around we'll play a lot better."
Much of the attention in Sochi was on the new suits made by Under Armour, supposedly the fastest in the world. Looking to maintain a competitive advantage, the U.S. didn't break out the attire until the Olympics. In hindsight, that was a big mistake, Morris said, though he stressed no problems were found with the suit. Even after switching back to their old suits midway through the games, the Americans didn't improve.
Under Armour has extended its deal with U.S. Speedskating through the 2022 Winter Games, but the next generation of suits will be given to the athletes at the beginning of the season during Olympic years. Also, the evaluation showed that many athletes were uncomfortable with a new polish used on their skates in Sochi, which was supposed to further improve speeds.
"When our athletes get to the starting line in Korea," Morris said, "we want them to know what they need to do with no doubt in their minds."
He said the U.S. became too enamored with making the podium at the World Cup races before Sochi. Many other nations — most notably, the Netherlands, which won a record eight golds and 23 medals overall — were using those meets as warm-ups toward peak condition at the Olympics.
Also, several Americans, including Davis and Richardson, took part in the world sprint championships at Japan just weeks before the Olympics. With the grind of traveling and all the grueling competition, they were in no shape for their best performances. That was confirmed by some of the strength numbers the team compiled.
Going forward, the U.S. will tailor its schedule toward peak performances at the Olympics and the World Single Distance Championships, which are held at about the same time in non-Olympic years.
"You've got to be 110 percent when you get to the Olympics," Morris said. "Our guys seemed to be off."
The program has already parted with high-performance director Finn Halvorsen and national allround coach Kip Carpenter, though Morris stressed that neither was fired. The organization is still talking with national sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro about whether he will stay in that post.
While optimistic that most of the top skaters will return for the 2018 Olympics, Morris said he's concerned about the future of a program that already struggles to lure top athletes and didn't help its recruitment efforts in Sochi.
"I'm concerned about 2022," he said. "I want to see more talent coming up than can help us eight years down the road. I'm not as concerned about four years down the road. But eight years is a little scary."
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