The Edge
6:52 am
Sun February 9, 2014

U.S. Speedskaters Get A Little Help From Their Friends

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 2:15 pm

Speedskating is the U.S.'s most successful winter Olympic Sport. In Sochi this year, great things are expected again.

The secret to their success includes talent, skill and hard work, but there's also a network of support that buoys the team.

Two-time gold medalist Shani Davis is looking to win a history-making third: He would be the first speedskater to win the same event in three different Olympics.

During the eight years since his first gold, Davis has brought so many kids into the sport, he's beginning to compete with them. One them is his teammate, Brian Hansen.

"Just look at Shani Davis," Hansen says. "He has two gold medals and two silver medals; first black athlete to ever win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics and in an individual event. In my opinion, he's underrated."

As good as Davis or any of his other teammates are, when you're in a sport with legendary names like Apollo Ohno, Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen, the expectations are high. Real high.

"Sometimes we joke, you know, a gold medal's almost not enough," Hansen says. "You need a gold medal and a story, or you need three gold medals."

'We All Help Each Other'

Hansen is one of the speedskaters who grew up in the sport. Many of his teammates, however, switched — from inline skating (roller blades) to ice skates.

Brittany Bowe is one of them. Not only was she a competitive inline skater, she also played college basketball. Of the teams she's been on, Bowe says, this one is different.

"We all help each other," Bowe says. "We all pick each other up and we make each other better every day. Having Heather next to me, who is one of — if not the — fastest women in the world, is definitely an advantage."

She's talking about Heather Richardson, her teammate and roommate. Both Richardson and Bowe are considered favorites to medal during the the Winter Games. Richardson says even though there's a lot of pressure on the speed skating athletes to succeed, when you know and skate with people who've won gold, it doesn't seem out of your reach.

"One person has a medal and then everyone else is going to want a medal," Richardson says.

'Legitimate R And D'

Part of what makes all that realistic is the help that the speed skating team has gotten. A New York doctor gave each of the athletes Lasik eye surgery if they wanted it. Lockheed Martin and Under Armour joined forces to make the team new, Space-Age suits that look a little like Spider Man's outfit.

Joey Mantia, who is new to speedskating, also switched from inline skating. He says Lasik surgery helped him to see better and gave him confidence. So did the new suits, because he knew they were developed after some serious research.

"Legitimate R and D," Mantia says. "Not just some guys skating out, doing a couple laps and saying 'Oh, it feels faster.' They actually put these things in a wind tunnel and did hundreds and hundreds of hours of testing in different skating positions, so you know that the science checks out on that."

Mantia says with new eyesight and a new suit, you never know what's next.

"Bionic legs," he jokes. "I'm going to get the procedure done. Never get tired again, because big legs get tired. You never know who the next mad scientist is who is going to dream something like that up."

"We're just real lucky that we have a lot of good support staff to give us these little benefits as we come into the Olympics."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. A second gold for Team USA at the Winter Olympics this morning. Jamie Anderson won the women's slopestyle snowboarding event. Now, all eyes are on the speed skaters of Team USA. Two-time gold medalist Shani Davis is looking to win a third gold in Sochi. Overall, the U.S. speed skating team is looking for at least a half-dozen gold medals. NPR's Sonari Glinton has this report from Sochi.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: At some point during these Olympics Games, you can probably expect to hear something like this:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But Shani Davis across the line. He's getting close. He could beat it. He does. Shani Davis moves into first and takes the gold.

GLINTON: Now, that was years and in that same time, Davis has brought so many kids into the sport he's beginning to compete with them, like his teammate Brian Hansen.

BRIAN HANSEN: Well, just look at Shani Davis, you know. He's, you know, two gold medals and two silver medals, first black athlete to ever win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics in an individual event. And, you know, in my opinion, he's underrated.

GLINTON: Because, as Hansen said in Sochi this week, as good as Shani Davis is or any of his other teammates are, when you're in a sport with legendary names like Apolo Ohno or Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen, the expectations are high - real high.

HANSEN: You know, sometimes we joke, you know, gold medal's almost not enough. You need a gold medal and a story, or you need three gold medals.

GLINTON: Part of Hansen's story is that he trained in Milwaukee even though he lived in Chicago. Hansen is one of the speed skaters who grew up in the sport, but many of his teammates have switched from in-line skating - roller blades - to ice skates. Brittany Bowe is one of them. Not only was she a competitive inland skater but she played college basketball. And of the teams she's been on, Bowe says this one is different.

BRITTANY BOWE: We all help each other. We all pick each other and we make each other better every day. But having Heather next to me, who is one of, if not the fastest women in the world is definitely an advantage to have.

GLINTON: The Heather she's talking about is Heather Richardson, her teammate and roommate. Richardson and Bowe are considered favorites to medal during the Winter Games here in Sochi. Richardson says even though there's a lot of pressure on the speed skating athletes to succeed, when you know and skate with people who've won gold, it doesn't seem out of your reach.

HEATHER RICHARDSON: One person has a medal and then everyone else is going to want a medal, you know. So...

GLINTON: Is eight medals, though, is that realistic looking at it? I don't know how...

RICHARDSON: Oh, definitely. I think that's realistic.

GLINTON: Part of what makes all that realistic is the help that the speed skating team gets. A New York doctor gave each of the athletes Lasik eye surgery for free if they wanted. And Lockheed Martin and Under Armor, the sports clothing company, helped make new space-age suits that kind of look like Spider-Man's outfit. Joey Matina is new to speed skating. He switched from inline also. He says Lasik surgery helped to be able to see and gave him confidence. And so did the new suits, because he know they did legitimate.

JOEY MATINA: Legitimate R&D, not just some guys, you know, skating out and doing a couple of laps, saying, oh, it feels faster. They actually put these things, you know, in a wind tunnel and did hundreds and hundreds of hours or testing in different positions, different skating positions. So, you know that the science checks out on that. And that's just a, you know, a big confidence booster in the back of my mind.

GLINTON: Matina says with new eyesight and a new suit, you never know what could come next.

MATINA: Bionic legs. I'm going to go bionic lege. I'm going to get the procedure done. Never get tired again. Because, you know, big legs get tired. So - but you never know who the next mad scientist is going to dream something like that up. But, you know, we're just real lucky that we have a lot of good support and staff like that to give us these little benefits as we come into the Olympics.

GLINTON: But really how much could that really matter? The legs that have are probably the fastest in the world. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.