American Speedskaters Leave Ice Disappointed

U.S. speedskating took a big hit in Sochi today, coming out of the 1,000-meter competition with no medals. The team's highest rank was eighth, earned by Shani Davis, who has dominated this race in the past.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. To the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in this part of the program. The winter games are a spectacle, daring acrobatics, harrowing heights, dizzying speeds and today some of the fastest men on skates were on the ice trying to bring home the gold. Among them, American Shani Davis, a two-time gold medalist in the 1,000 meters. He was hoping for a record third in a row.

NPR's Sonari Glinton is in Sochi and joins us now to tell us how it went. Hello, Sonari, and how did it go for Shani Davis?

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm afraid to report it didn't go so well for Shani Davis. He came in eighth, which is a big disappointment for speedskating fans. I'm sure it's a big disappointment to Shani Davis. Yeah, he lost by three-fourths of a second, which is an eternity in speedskating. He was beat out by the powerhouses of speedskating, of course, the Dutch. Stefan Groothuis won the gold and Michel Mulder got bronze.

And Mulder won a gold in the 500 already and then Denny Morrison of Canada won silver. The U.S. and the Netherlands have been sort of in an arms race of sorts when it comes to speedskating. The U.S. got these space-age suits that were designed by Under Armour and tested by Lockheed Martin and U.S. speedskaters were also offered free Lasik surgery if they chose.

And there was an equal amount of R and D and time spent on the Dutch side to make sure that the Dutch could win this most hometown of sports.

SIEGEL: Sonari, you said that the American skaters were offered free Lasik surgery. What is the huge advantage of having Lasik surgery?

GLINTON: Well, I think the advantage is confidence. I mean, a lot of these guys wear contact lenses. There was the big event where a skater lost his contact while going around and when you can see and you know you're confident of what's going on, you know, that adds to speed. Now, I don't necessarily think, you know, does it make a difference because we're talking about tenths of a second, but the skaters tell me that it's really important to be confident.

And so when a couple of skaters who've gotten the Lasik say they can see, they're sure. They're supposed to look at their eyebrows because of the way their head is bent over. And, you know, you need to see the turn, you need to see the line, you need to see the other skater, you need to see the coach who's going to be yelling at you when you come along, you know, all of that, you know, if it's a little bit - if it's a hair, you know.

Shani Davis lost by three-fourths of a second. If even a little bit of a hair, that might be the difference between gold or silver.

SIEGEL: Well, back to Shani Davis now. He is the first black American to win an individual gold at the Winter Olympics. I want you to give us some sense of how important a figure he is to the sport of speedskating.

GLINTON: Shani Davis is a genuinely transcendent figure and it's not just about race. He has broadened the sport. You know, he's been around it so long that at 31 years old, he's an old man, but he's skating with 20 year olds, 23 year olds who started because they were inspired by him. And he's been all around the sport, going to all the events. He knows all the speedskaters personally.

And we asked them, they say he is underrated because if he were in another sport that got more props that he would be much more respected. But he's one of the fasted men in the world and they see him as changing the sport fundamentally. But all is not lost for Shani Davis and those people who love American speedskating because he's still got one race left. He's got the 1500 where he's already won two silver medals.

And on any given night, he could win another.

SIEGEL: Okay. That's NPR's Sonari Glinton in Sochi. Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: Thank you, Robert.

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