U.S. men take silver in team pursuit speedskating

Chicago TribuneFebruary 27, 2010 

Chad Hedrick leads the U.S. team in the men's pursuit finals. The U.S. won the silver medal. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

RICHMOND, British Columbia — After the medal-hanging and bouquet-dispensing on the podium Saturday, there was a bit of confusion for the post-ceremony photo op.

The United States speedskaters had shuffled to the left of Canada's team, traditionally the spot occupied by bronze medalists. So the quartet from the Netherlands intervened. The day's actual bronze winners redirected the silver medal crew to the opposite side, the Americans happily obliging the hierarchy.

Nothing better represented the end of the speedskating schedule at Richmond Olympic Oval. In no way should the U.S. men have been where they were, dispatching the powerhouse Dutch a day earlier and vying for gold in team pursuit, so a second-place finish to Canada was a fate greeted with smiles and jokes about how heavy medals actually are.

The U.S team pursuit crew featured three first-time Olympians all under the age of 20. Chad Hedrick, the lone veteran, woke up Saturday with sharp pains in his hip and wasn't sure he'd even skate. And against a team that set Olympic records just a day earlier, they lost by a respectable .23 seconds.

"I'm just happy to be here, and the next thing you know, we're in the medal round going against the Canadians," said the U.S.'s Brian Hansen. "I thought it was just real cool to beat the Dutch. And then to be out there in the medal round against the Canadians, it was just such a big deal for me and for these guys too."

The vibrations, though, were decidedly less than good regarding the U.S. women's misfortunes.

Stoked by a huge upset of Canada on Friday, they faltered in the semifinal against Germany (despite a German skater tumbling at the finish) and then collapsed under the weight of a dubious personnel decision to finish fourth in team pursuit.

After Nancy Swider-Peltz, Jr., skated in both the quarters and semis, U.S. coach Derek Parra said Swider-Peltz "felt a little flat." Thus four-time Olympian Catherine Raney-Norman — who'd had a miserable Winter Games to date — was deemed "fresh" and inserted for the bronze medal race.

Raney-Norman promptly imploded, falling well off-pace by race's end. A half-second U.S. lead with two laps left dissolved into a 1.57-second blowout loss. While Raney-Norman lingered in the trainer's room and said nothing after, the disappointment was evident in the teary U.S. skaters that mustered the strength to talk.

"I think I was just as strong as all the other girls — it just looked like I wasn't," Swider-Peltz, Jr., said. "It was a hard call. ... Who knows? We'll never know. I could've been great, just running on adrenaline, or I could've bombed. We'll never know."

Said the U.S.'s Jen Rodriguez: "Sometimes in a race, you feel fresh going into it, and when the gun goes off it doesn't click. ... I felt good, (Jilleanne Rookard) felt good, but it's a team event. So everyone has to feel good. Our day was (Friday), a day too early maybe."

Two wins Friday guaranteed the men a worthwhile ending. Hedrick thus had his chance for one last moment of holding the flag aloft and waving to the crowd before hanging up his blades.

"This is my fifth medal, all in different distances, a major accomplishment for me," Hedrick said. "It's definitely been a great ride."

U.S. Speedskating, which barely located a sponsor this year, faces an uncertain future. No one expected the present to look like it did Saturday, though, so that may be a snapshot worth savoring.

"Pulling together in a few days," Jonathan Kuck said, "I think we did all right."

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