Speedskaters shaken by undaunted by Moscow blasts

PAUL NEWBERRY - AP National Writer
General view of Domodedovo airport near Moscow on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Security was tightened after a suicide bomber set off an explosion that ripped through Moscow's busiest airport on Monday. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)
View photos
General view of Domodedovo airport near Moscow on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Security was tightened after a suicide bomber set off an explosion that ripped through Moscow's busiest airport on Monday.

When the U.S. speedskating team landed in Moscow for their next race, coach Ryan Shimabukuro flipped on his cell phone and found it buzzing with missed calls, text messages and e-mails.

Then he learned why everyone was trying to get in touch.

There had been a bombing at one of the city's biggest airports, and everyone wanted to make sure that he and his skaters were OK.

"I think it was more worrisome for those back home," Shimabukuro told The Associated Press on Wednesday in an internet call from his hotel room in Moscow. "They were getting all sorts of conflicting information. For us, we never knew there was a threat. We never felt in danger, though obviously there is some concern when it hits that close to home."

The U.S. squad arrived in Russia's capital for this weekend's World Cup event on two separate flights Monday — the same day a suicide bomber killed 35 people and left 180 people wounded in an attack on Domodedovo Airport.

Fortunately for the Americans, their flights landed at Sheremetyevo, another of the three major airports that serve Moscow.

While a bit shaken by the explosion, the nine skaters are carrying on like it's business as usual, passing up an offer from U.S. Speedskating to return home if they didn't feel safe in Russia.

"At this point, everyone just wants to focus on what they need to do," Shimabukuro said. "We're here to skate fast."

Several skaters went on Facebook to let everyone back home know they were OK.

"Bomb went off in the moscow airport," Jilleanne Rookard posted. "pray for those who were killed and pray for the rest of Team USA's safety! They arrive soon!"

Rookard was on a morning flight that brought in about half the skaters from the United States. The rest of the team, including Shimabukuro, arrived on an evening plane from the world sprint championships, held last weekend in the Netherlands.

"that was messed up," Tucker Fredricks, who raced at the championships, wrote on Facebook. "we landed and our coach was getting tons of phone calls to see if we were ok."

The remaining team members in Moscow are Heather Richardson, Rebekah Bradford, Lauren Cholewinski, Kelly Gunther, Ryan Bedford, Mitch Whitmore and Joey Lindsey.

The top American speedskater, two-time Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis, finished third overall in the Netherlands but didn't go to Moscow, deciding to return to Utah to train for the world all-around championships.

The national federation, headquartered in Utah, consulted with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the State Department before deciding that it wasn't necessary to order the team back to the States. The American embassy in Moscow reported no imminent threat against the athletes.

"U.S. Speedskating sent a statement to the team that if anyone wanted to leave Moscow and head home, they would understand and do whatever they can to get them home safely," Shimabukuro said.

There were no takers.

"Obviously, there's some concern when it hits that close to home," the coach said. "But since we've been here, we haven't felt any danger at all. You've just got to be very careful when your traveling. Don't walk by yourself, things like that. You've just got to be smart and know what you're doing."

Shimabukuro was a bit taken aback when he saw no visible appearance of enhanced security upon touching down in Moscow about two hours after the blast.

"When we walked out of customs and into the arrival hall, we didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "It was surprising when we came through and there was no extra security we were aware of. Everyone just seemed to be going on with their daily business."

It's much the same in the city itself.

"There's nothing going on here at the hotel, nothing at the rink, to show they're concerned about anything," Shimabukuro said. "There's no beefed-up security. It's not like we're getting a police escort to and from oval. It's just business as usual."

The speedskating program has captured more Olympic medals for the U.S. than any other winter sport, but it's barely noticed in its own country. That changed in the lead-up to the Vancouver Games, when comedian Stephen Colbert stepped in to sponsor the team after its main supporter went bust.

Viewers of the "The Colbert Report" donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the team, which slapped the faux news show's logo on their uniforms during the World Cup season. Colbert, in turn, used the relationship for plenty of humorous fodder, capped off by a taping in Vancouver during the Olympics.

Colbert moved on after the Games, and the speedskaters have slipped back into their typically shaky financial state. The team did receive some good news last summer, when BMW signed on as a sponsor of several winter sports through a deal with the USOC, but there's still the persistent need to land more financial backing.

Even so, the results on the ice have been very encouraging.

The Americans have captured a total of 19 medals this season, including 11 golds, while showing impressive depth. Davis has led the way with four golds, a silver and a bronze in the individual events, plus a third-place finish in the sprint championships. Five other skaters — Rookard, Richardson, Fredricks, Trevor Marsicano and Jonathan Kuck — have also made the podium. Richardson, a former inliner from North Carolina, just missed out on a medal at the sprint championships, finishing fourth.

"I'm not surprised. ... We could see they were ready to make a breakthrough," Shimabukuro said. "We just have to stay focused on what's important and not be distracted by suicide bombings or financial difficulties, whatever it may be. Just stay focused on the business of skating fast."