SOCHI, Russia (AP) — The U.S. speedskating team's best Olympic performances have come on home ice. Now, in the faraway Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, the Americans think they have a shot at matching their biggest medal haul.
"Oh, I definitely think that's realistic," said Heather Richardson, one of several top contenders on the U.S. squad.
The 2002 team won eight medals in Salt Lake City, a performance that still reverberates through the program, leading to improved training methods and the American team moving largely to the Utah Olympic Oval. The only other time the U.S. captured as many as eight medals was 1980, also on home ice at Lake Placid with Eric Heiden carrying the bulk of the load with five golds.
"The home-field advantage plays to the host country," U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro said Thursday, about 48 hours before the start of speedskating at Adler Arena. "That's been shown through and through at every Olympics."
That means the Russians will likely perform better than their World Cup results have shown. Throw in the Dutch, who appear to have one of their strongest teams ever, and it's going to be especially challenging to claim a spot on the podium in Sochi.
That said, the Americans have plenty of medal hopefuls.
Start with Shani Davis, the two-time defending gold medalist in the 1,000 meters and a silver medalist in the 1,500 at the last two Olympics. At 31 and possibly competing in his final Winter Games, he is especially motivated to add to his legacy as one of the sport's most complete skaters — even planning to join team pursuit for the first time at the Olympics.
Though not at Davis' level, Brian Hansen and Tucker Fredricks have also shown they can compete with the world's best from time to time. They just need to show they can do it on the biggest stage.
On the women's side, Richardson and Brittany Bowe have pushed each other to greater success with their friendly rivalry. Richardson is ranked second in the World Cup standings for the 500, Richardson and Bowe are 1-2 in the 1,000, while Bowe leads the 1,500 standings and Richardson is coming on strong in that event, beating Bowe at the U.S. Olympic trials.
"I think we have a lot of camaraderie on this team," said Joey Mantia, another American with a World Cup victory this season. "Everybody gets along really good together, and we've had a really good World Cup season."
Shimabukuro doesn't like to compare teams, but he concedes this is a group with a lot of potential.
"My speech to the team was that every team is unique," the coach said. "This team is no different. Obviously, through our results in the World Cups, we have proven we have the ability. Now it's time to let the competition write its own stories."
Shimabukuro knows that a strong start can inspire the rest of the team, but the Americans aren't likely to win medals in the first two events: the men's 5,000 on Saturday, followed by the women's 3,000 on Sunday.
Fredricks, a three-time Olympian, will go Monday in the men's 500 — a potentially pivotal race if the veteran skater pulls out a medal. That could spark an almost daily march to the medal stand for the Americans over the first full week of the games.
If that happens, eight medals definitely looks possible.
"We certainly have the talent and ability," Shimabukuro said, "to match or even better those records."
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(Photo: EPA/VINCENT JANNINK/LANDOV)