When it comes down to these guys racing, everybody is on the top of their game, and you’ve got to train specifically. And we just didn’t. —Joey Mantia
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Every push of Joey Mantia’s skates hurt.
“I was freaking out a little bit and trying to stay with it,” said the Sandy speedskater, who came agonizingly close to an Olympic podium for the second straight day. “I was a little tired in the heat, so I tried to play it safe in the final.”
Mantia officially finished ninth in the Mass Start, a new Olympic event for long track speedskaters that both coaches and athletes are still trying to figure out, but, in reality, he was much closer to a medal than the final standings indicate.
On Friday night, Mantia finished fourth in the 1,000 meters, an unexpectedly good performance that he said would give him confidence going into Saturday’s Mass Start. Mantia won the event making its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang at World Championships last year.
“I think that’s the problem,” he said of how different the mass start race is from every other long track competition. “We just didn’t train enough on the race lane going fast enough at those speeds. It’s weird because it’s a new event so we didn’t really alter the program exactly. We kind of just rested on the laurels of winning the world championships. ‘Oh, we’ll be good enough.’ When it comes down to these guys racing, everybody is on the top of their game, and you’ve got to train specifically. And we just didn’t.”
Long track is distinct in that skaters take the ice in pairs and battle the clock. In mass start, however, up to 12 skaters race at the same time in a 16-lap contest that features four sprint laps worth points that help a skater’s standing. And yet, the first three across the line in the final win medals.
Mantia crossed the line fourth, but he officially finished ninth because sprint points gave other skaters an edge in the final standings.
The Sandy resident wasn’t trying to accumulate points. He was trying to win his first Olympic medal.
“I knew I needed to play it safe in the final,” he said. “I knew I needed to sit the whole time. Three laps to go, I tried to push to keep up with Lee (Seung-Hoon, the gold medalist) on the inside; my legs actually just cramped. I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
The cramping not only affected his speed, it forced him to wait just a little too long to make his move.
“I tried to get back in it, but I didn’t hop on those guys early enough,” he said. “Ultimately, I didn’t train hard enough or specifically enough for this event.”
Mantia said he feels better about his second Olympic experience than his first four years ago.
“Ultimately, it was way better than Sochi,” he said. “I went home from Sochi with my head hanging low, tail between my legs, so to speak. Here, I’m very proud of the fourth place yesterday. I was fourth across the line in mass start, on more and I would have had a medal.”
Mantia admitted that he may be second-guessing himself, and he hinted that he could commit to one more Olympic Games.
“The should have, could have, would have, where you kind of analyze what happened, what you can do moving forward,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with U.S. Speedskating and the organization, but chances are I’ll probably get another four years and chase the gold because I’m still hungry for it.”
Overall, the U.S. Speedskating team had a much more successful Olympics than 2014. They take just two medals — one in short track, one in long track — as opposed to one short track medal in 2014. The biggest difference is in the number of top 10 finishes. This year, they had 11, and two skaters, Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, had six of those.
Ultimately, U.S. High Performance Director at U.S. Speedskating Guy Thibault hopes coming so close to the podium will be a positive foundation for skaters like Bowe and Mantia to build on for the next four years.
“Fourth place is always the worst place,” he said, noting that Mantia is steadily improving. “The guy came close in two of three events Hopefully, that’s enough to give him that little edge. He’s missing that little edge to be at the level of Kjeld Nuis, the kid who won the 1000 and 1500. Joey can be that guy. Hopefully, this is a stepping stone for him to get on the podium.”
Thibault said coaches are happy with the improvements made since Sochi.
“We’re pleased with what we saw,” he said. “Yes, we missed a few, but we come back with two medals. We were hoping for more. Looking at where we were with all the changes we made from the Sochi lesson, totally different attitude, totally different atmosphere with the team. Everybody came here to skate their best. The results yesterday were actually impressive. We missed the podium again, very close, but the three guys skated their best race of the season.”
While some weren’t sure about the new mass start at the Games, Mia Manganello, who tried to tire the pack out for teammate Heather Bergsma, a world class sprinter, is thrilled.
“I love it,” said Manganello, who was part of the women’s Team Pursuit bronze. “l love the speed, the contact, the strategy behind all of it, figuring it out. I’m ecstatic that it’s an Olympic sport.”
Manganello finished 15th, while Bergsma finished in 11th place.
Bergsma said she was thrilled to be leaving the 2018 Games with a medal.
“Sometimes, it takes a team to get it done,” she said with a smile.