The United States finished third in the speed skating team pursuit on Tuesday, capturing the second American speed skating medal of these Olympics. The men from the United States are the world record holders in the team pursuit and were favorites to win the event, making third place a success and a disappointment at the same time.
Russian Olympic Committee
The American team of Joey Mantia, Casey Dawson and Emery Lehman beat the Netherlands in the B final – effectively the race for the bronze medal – by nearly three seconds. Norway won the gold medal, for the second consecutive Olympic Games, beating Russia in the final.
But an unexpected decision potentially cost the United States a chance to face Norway in the final. Mantia, America’s most accomplished skater, did not skate in the semi-finals against a team from Russia, Ethan Cepuran was instead chosen by the team to race with Dawson and Lehman.
Dawson, Lehman and Cepuran skated well, leading in the middle of the race – their time of 3 minutes 37.05 seconds was faster than the Olympic record (and faster than the Americans skated with Mantia in the B final). But the Russians skated an even better race and won by nearly half a second.
Both Cepuran and Mantia said they were only a little disappointed with the semi-final loss. “How unlucky you must be that Russia went four seconds faster in the semi-final than in the final? Mantia said. “The race of their life. You can’t really be sad about it. It’s just a bit of bad luck.
The plan has always been for Mantia not to skate in the quarterfinals, the team said. Before the semis, the skaters sat down and talked candidly about how they all felt, and that conversation resulted in Cepuran skating in the semis instead of Mantia. After the semis, Cepuran was more tired than Dawson, who came to the Olympics late and was fresher, so he retired for Mantia.
In the men’s team pursuit, three team members skate in single file a few inches apart for eight laps, with the time of the last skater to cross the finish line being counted. Usually, every lap or two, the front skater, who does the grueling job of setting the pace while the others slip in their wake, falls back and lets a new teammate lead and suffer.
As a group of individuals, American skaters are less accomplished than most of their opponents. None of them had won an Olympic medal before, for example, and apart from Mantia, none came particularly close. Their opponents in the chase for the bronze medal, the Dutch, were led by nine-time Olympic medalist Sven Kramer and four-time Olympic medalist Patrick Roest.
But the United States has prioritized the team pursuit for the past four years with a bold and innovative strategy that has upended the course of the race. Instead of swapping who skates ahead, USA has one member lead the entire race, while their teammates use the saved energy to physically push themselves forward. The strategy was successful: the Americans set the world record in Salt Lake City in December, and the Norwegians, who won gold on Tuesday, readily admit having copied it.
The bronze medal is the first for any U.S. skater and came in the third and possibly last Olympics for Mantia, who is 36. Last week it looked like he seemed resigned to retiring without ever winning an Olympic medal after finishing sixth in the 1,500 metres.
“It’s heartbreaking, you know,” Mantia said at the time. “I really thought it was my chance.”
It was hard to be too disappointed, then, after finally winning a medal. “I feel like the weight has been lifted in a way,” Mantia said. “I am an Olympic medalist.”
In the women’s team pursuit, the Canadian favorites defeated the Japanese and set a new Olympic record. The Japanese led the entire race, but on the final curve, Nana Takagi suddenly lost her balance and fell, giving the gold medal to the Canadians. The Netherlands beat Russia for bronze.