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Sochi: US speed skaters controversy; Training on wrong ice or new skins?

Team USA speed skaters have failed to medal in Sochi as of Feb. 18, blaming the problem on the new Mach 39 skinsuits. But even when they raced in their old Under Armour suits on Saturday there were still no medals. What is the problem? Speed skating gold medalist Dan Jansen discussed what might have been the determining factor on NBC’s morning show Feb. 18.

Almost all teams with medals trained at low altitude rinks.
Almost all teams with medals trained at low altitude rinks.
Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

When one of the greatest skaters, Shani Davis, has one of the worst skates of his Olympic life controversy is bound to follow. The other skaters complained as well, that the suits seem to create a drag which made it more difficult to skate and that the glide from each push-off seemed to be short of what they normally experienced.

Many of the coaches are puzzled including Canada coach Bart Schouten who led the American team for about a decade through the 2006 Torino Games. "I really can't explain what happened there," he said Saturday. "They were incredibly fast in the fall at the World Cups. They were really good at the trials. They were fast at the trials.

However other top skaters and long-term coaches believe the suits were not the problem, just an unfortunate casualty. They point to the fact that the fastest teams have all trained at sea level where the ice is different.

Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., who coaches U.S. speedskater Brian Hansen, was against the team going to train at high altitude in Collalbo, Italy, before the Games especially because most of the team trains in Salt Lake City, also high altitude.

Sochi is below sea level, on slow ice in high humidity. Hansen was the top American, finishing seventh in the 1,500; he trains in Milwaukee, the American city that most resembles the conditions in Sochi.

"Collalbo was a big mistake," Swider-Peltz said. "I'm going to get in trouble for it, but I don't care anymore. I am tired of not being believed."

Robert Chapman, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University agrees. “It’s a little counter-intuitive because we usually think altitude slows people down, but in speed skating, it’s the other way around.” It explains the drag the skaters were experiencing.

He explained that air resistance is less at higher altitudes due to the lower oxygen levels. At Sochi the skaters are dealing with denser air resistance and humidity which also adds to the feeling of drag and the need to exert more effort to reach and maintain the same speed reached at higher altitudes. In fact, all world speed skating world records have taken place in cities more than 3,400 feet above sea level.

The stats seem to confirm the theory. Over the past five years, U.S. skaters have won 56 medals in 128 World Cup races at altitude tracks (44%) and 104 medals in 398 races at sea-level tracks (26%).

Speed skating gold medalist Dan Jansen illustrated the difference on NBC’s “Today Show” on Feb. 18.

The Salt Lake City Olympic Oval ice is considered the cleanest and fastest in the world and skaters who train there become accustomed to getting a lot of glide out of each push. Slower "working ice" in Milwaukee — and Sochi — requires a different technique, tempo and effort.

"If you always skate on perfect ice without resistance, you skate a certain way," Jansen said. "You'll be a lot longer (with each stride). You'll use the ice. The ice can carry you and this ice will not carry you. So you've got to adjust for that.

Jansen pointed to Shani Davis' race in the 1,000 meters as an example. Davis finished eighth and afterward was dumbfounded by his slow lap time. "Shani floated into his turn. Twice," Jansen said. "But again, I know why. His best part is the turn and he was setting up a perfect turn and he skated a good turn. But on this ice you can't float. You've got to keep the tempo up because you're not going to glide like you will in Salt Lake City."

U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro dismissed such claims, saying the camp wasn't the issue: the team had done the same thing heading in Torino and had great success.

Now retired and working for NBC, Apolo Anton Ohno has watched the saga unfold like a reality show on ice. "At the end of the day no matter who's right and wrong the only people that really suffer are the athletes," Ohno told USA TODAY Sports before the season. "And unfortunately when it comes down to that, it means less medals for the United States.

"The problems in US Speedskating are nothing new," said Ohno. "US Speedskating has been riddled with problems since I started my career."

Perhaps the answers will come out only after the Games, when U.S. Speedskating does a thorough evaluation of what went wrong.

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