Richardson, Bowe can't mask deep disappointment for U.S. speed skaters

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SOCHI -- Another chapter of the U.S. Great Polyurethane Panic of 2014 was written in Adler Arena Sunday night, as Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe continued the dizzyingly confusing trend of American underachievement on the oval. Three days after the two U.S. contenders finished seventh and eighth in the 1000 meters Thursday, Richardson and Bowe finished seventh and 14th in the 1500, respectively, thereby all but closing the book on Team USA’s individual medal hopes for Sochi.

“Obviously it’s unfortunate,” Bowe said. “Nobody wants to be in the position that we’re in, but we’re here and we’re doing what we can with it.”

It’s been a head-scratching week for the U.S. speed skating team. They came to Sochi with high hopes for a bountiful medal haul, anchored by two-time gold medalist Shani Davis. Now, they could realistically leave with none. Only the longer distances -- 10,000 meters for men and 3000 meters for women -- remain individually. And though there are team pursuit events still to come, there isn’t much reason to believe that collectively, they’d be any better than they were individually.

They’ve tried to deflect the utter disappointment, the distractions, but questions keep swirling. Is it their new suits? With the ISU’s permission, Davis, Richardson, Bowe and the rest of Team USA went back to their old skating suits. It made no significant difference. Training at altitude? Coach Ryan Shimabukuro says no, they’ve done it plenty of times before and never seen anything like this. Improper tapering? No.

Then what?

From the coaches to the skaters, everyone is at a loss. This soon in the aftermath, there will be no definitive answers. There may never be a definitive answer for what’s transpired these last two weeks.

Brittany Bowe couldn't hide her disappointment after finishing out of medal contention on Sunday.

Brittany Bowe couldn't hide her disappointment after finishing out of medal contention on Sunday.

It’s been hard for particularly these women, who were medal favorites in three individual events and who finished with none. Though, you wouldn’t be able to tell that by their words alone. Their rehearsed and, frankly, phony statements of positivity -- “At this point, I’m going to chalk it up as a win because I tried skating my best,” Bowe said -- belied what was welling up in their eyes.

Richardson said she was happy and proud of her race Sunday, noting her 1:57.60 was one of the best sea-level times she’s ever put up. But happy and proud was not the face that stepped off the track. She sat still on a bench in the infield of the oval for a long while, elbows on her knees and staring out to no point in particular. When a coach walked over and put a hand on her back, she didn’t even flinch.

After the race, Richardson said she cried Thursday night after finishing seventh in the 1000 meters, the race she was supposed to win. It was the most honest thing either of the women said.

Bowe desperately wanted to put on the right façade, but it was too hard. She told the team’s press officer she didn’t want to talk to reporters. After taking a few questions, the press officer cut off the scrum, and Bowe left quickly with the truth written all over her face but not coming out of her mouth.

This has been a hard and disappointing week, full of distractions and restlessness for the skaters, and it’s gotten to them, even though they won’t admit it. As many questions as reporters and the public might have, it’s certain that the athlete herself has even more. But what can they do now?

“Right now, we’re not going to do a full analysis,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s too emotional. It’s too in the moment. We’ve got to do a specific analysis, and [we’ve] got to do it with a clear head and an open heart. Now’s not the time to be doing that.”

In the absence of answers, they’re left only with emptiness, disappointment and a bunch of polyurethane suits.