SOCHI, Russia – Most expected a historic performance from the U.S. Long Track Speedskating team in the Sochi Olympics.
But what happened at Adler Arena was not what anyone expected.
Shock, sadness, confusion, anger and a whole lot of finger-pointing now overshadow anything the athletes have done on the ice. With emotion evident in her voice, skater Maria Lamb expressed the frustration many feel about the futility of the U.S. Long Track team in an Olympic Games that should have been its finest hour. Instead of its highest medal haul since 2002, the team was shut out of individual medals for the first time in 30 years.
In response to a question about what she was thinking when she smiled before her race, she blasted the organization, specifically its high-performance team.
“It’s been a rather rough Olympics for speedskating as a whole, and I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t affected me,” Lamb said, taking a deep breath as she struggled to control her emotions after finishing last in the 5,000-meter event Wednesday. “We came here with world-record holders, World Cup winners, world champions. To have to watch so many people have such bad performances, not because they weren’t capable of so much better and that they weren’t prepared for so much better, to be defeated more by some of the leadership of the organization itself. To not be able to overcome that, honestly, it broke my heart.”
She was vague in her criticism and reporters were not allowed to ask follow-up questions. U.S. Speedskating declined a request from the Deseret News to discuss her comments in an email that said leadership felt it was inappropriate to discuss these issues while athletes were still trying to compete in Sochi.
While Lamb’s criticism is the most pointed from an athlete, head coach Ryan Shimabukuro has dealt with media questions about the high-performance skin suits that were ditched midway through the games, as well as whether the team should have spent the weeks before the Olympics training outdoor in the mountains of Italy when this competition is at sea level.
Visibly frustrated about the rumors and allegations as well as devastated for the athletes he trains, Shimabukuro said the issues that led to the team’s failure to win a single medal have nothing to do with skin suits or the high-performance camps.
While theories swirl, his comments highlight the fact that U.S. Speedskating is an organization made up of many independent factions. The longer the U.S. went without winning a medal, the more vocal — and critical — those factions became with individual coaches criticizing decisions made weeks and months ago.
But Shimabukuro said the team cannot fully delve into issues that may be systemic right now because it has to do what it can to focus on competing in the final few team races.
“We’re not going to do an analysis right now,” he said. “It’s really hard to pinpoint. We have five different training programs, five different coaches, differing training locations and we’re coming up short, to stay the least. It’s frustrating. It’s very confusing.”
Lamb said watching her teammates who were expected to medal finish no higher than seventh has been gut-wrenching. She said the athletes had too much thrown at them in too short of a time period.
"I think over the last several years most of us have managed to perform incredibly well in spite of a lot of the organization rather than because of it," Lamb said "That adds up over the years, and unfortunately it came to a head that we could no longer perform well over here.
"This is my third games, and there is so much more nonsense in general going on. You have to try and tune it out. Not having an organization support you as it should, it becomes a lot worse."
While Lamb called out Finn Halvorsen, long track’s high-performance managing director specifically, Shimabukuro said he takes responsibility if the athletes aren’t prepared.
“I will take personal accountability for my athletes' performance before I blame anything else,” he said.
The organization's new executive director, Ted Morris, who just took the job in September, also claimed responsibility for the problems. However, their willingness to shoulder the blame doesn’t provide any answers about what specifically went wrong and how the situation can be fixed.
Shimabukuro, who’s patiently dealt with rounds and rounds of media questions and Morris, who talked to The Associated Press, said that is something that will happen after the Olympics.
And as for Lamb’s expression of sadness for her teammates, on that, she and Shimabukuro agree.
“It’s brutal,” he said. “My heart bleeds for the skaters because I know how much they put in and I know how much momentum we’ve had coming into these games. The support we’ve had not only from the Olympic committee and our sponsors and our families, obviously, to be in the situation we’re in right now, it’s devastating.”
But at the end of the day, and even with all of the theories and rumors and finger-pointing, the athletes still have to go out on the ice and compete.
“But skaters all still go to the line, chin up, ready to give their best effort every time,” he said. “I think they’re champions for doing that.”
Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: email@example.com
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company