Speedskating is America's pendulum sport of the Winter Olympics. Long-track speedskating's popularity crested in the 1980s through 1994, the era of Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. Along came Apolo Anton Ohno and his soul patch, and short track took off at the turn of the millennium.
The 2014 Olympics could see a swing back to equilibrium, if recent results and headlines hold.
In long track, the U.S. women haven't won an Olympic medal at the last two Games. Heather Richardson, 23, shoulders the burden of ending that drought. The Cheerwine-loving High Point, N.C., native won the world sprint title in January, given to the best skater over 500 and 1,000 meters, the two shortest distances of the five individual Olympic events.
Richardson, who switched from inline to ice in 2007 and made the 2010 Olympic team, leads the 1,000-meter World Cup standings, the best barometer of event-by-event Olympic medal prospects.
"I got all my jitters out that first Olympics, and all the surprises," said Richardson, who had the best U.S. individual female finish in Vancouver, sixth in the 500. "I definitely think that I have a target on my back now."
Richardson hopes to be one of the busiest American athletes at the Games. She plans to race not only her medal-favored 500 and 1,000 but also the 1,500 and the 2,400-meter team pursuit. Richardson hasn't entered a World Cup 1,500 this year and was not part of the four-woman pool for the team pursuit at the 2010 Olympics. Still, she could lead all U.S. women in medals. Brittany Bowe, a former college basketball star at Florida Atlantic, could medal in the 1,000 as well.
Vancouver Olympic champions Christine Nesbitt (Canada) and Martina Sablikova (Czech Republic) reign in the 1,500 and the 3,000 and 5,000, respectively. Meanwhile, Germany's controversial Claudia Pechstein, 40, eyes her 10th Olympic medal, in distance events and/or the team pursuit. Pechstein's first Olympics were the 1992 Albertville Games (hosted by Tim McCarver and Paula Zahn on CBS!), but she missed the Vancouver Games because of a doping suspension.
For the men, the pioneering Shani Davis' third (and likely final) Olympics will be about history. In the 1,000, he'll try to become the first American man to win the same Olympic event at three consecutive Winter Games. (Snowboarders Seth Wescott and Shaun White may have a say there, too).
Davis has won gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500 in back-to-back Olympics. If he wins two medals in Sochi, he'll surpass Heiden and Chad Hedrick as the most decorated U.S. male long-track speedskater in Olympic history.
Davis, 30, has pared his schedule with age (and injury, as he missed some time late last year with a groin problem). He's competed in speedskating's biggest event, the world allround championships, just once since 2008. He also missed this year's world sprint championships in Salt Lake City.
"He's still probably the best middle-distance skater in the world," said Jansen, now an NBC analyst. "He's got more competition now in those races [the 1,000 and 1,500], more so than there's ever been, which is even more of a reason for him to concentrate just on those two."
He's focusing almost solely on the 1,000 and 1,500 this season -- Davis had branched out to the 500 and the 5,000 at past Olympics -- winning races in both distances, but the big "if" is the team pursuit. Davis, quite controversially, opted out of the team event in 2006 and 2010, drawing the ire of Hedrick in Turin. Hedrick is retired now, and Davis' inclusion in the team event in Sochi could aid younger skaters in their only shot at an Olympic medal.
Any golds not won by Davis will most likely go to the dominant Dutch, led by reigning world allround champ Sven Kramer. Kramer was disqualified for using the wrong lane in the grueling 10,000 meters in Vancouver, the Games hyped up as the "Svencouver Olympics" by the Dutch press. Kramer, you may remember, also had
"I'm in better shape now than in the year before Vancouver, when I was too tired after too many competitions," said Kramer, 26, the reigning Olympic 5,000-meter champion who missed the 2010-11 season with a right thigh injury.
The U.S. medal prospects in short track are not nearly as defined. Ohno, 30, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with eight medals, has a few more months to decide if he's coming out of retirement to try to make a fourth Olympic team. Odds are he'll stick with the entertainment biz instead. He recently co-starred with Danica McKellar, best known for playing Winnie on
There are more U.S. questions. There's Simon Cho, the Seoul-born 2011 world champion, who is in indefinite purgatory for tampering with a Canadian's skate at an event two years ago. Cho fessed up in September, claiming he was ordered by the U.S. head coach, who has since resigned. U.S. Speedskating has yet to decide Cho's future after being handed an 84-page report on the incident in January, according to the
Double 2010 medalist Katherine Reutter was hoping to lead the U.S. women's short-track team, but chronic back problems forced the 24-year-old to retire last week.
"The way my body's recovering, it won't allow me to be as good as I used to be," said Reutter, once the world's top-ranked skater. "I'll always probably hurt in some way. Even if I can be as good as I once was, I'd be back in a sport that tears my body apart."
The cupboard isn't completely bare. J.R. Celski, who recovered from a 60-stitch crash gash at the 2010 Olympic trials to win two bronze medals, is the only American ranked in the world top five in any event, male or female. Celski took time off after Vancouver to collaborate with Seattle hip-hop artist Macklemore three years before the musician's rise to the Billboard zenith. He's back and faster than ever. Celski became the first man to break 40 seconds in the 500 meters in October.
The world short-track scene is largely unchanged. South Korea continues to reload like a top-five college football program and is still challenged by the occasional Canadian (Charles Hamelin) and Chinese (Wang Meng, back from suspension for a late-night drunken scuffle with a national team coach). It's interesting to note that South Korea's biggest rival may be country-hopping Russian Victor Ahn, the artist formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo, who won three golds for The Land of the Morning Calm in 2006.