Heather Bergsma, Brittany Bowe, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens made history Wednesday night in South Korea. They became the first female U.S. speed skaters to win an Olympic medal in team pursuit, and the first U.S. women to win long-track speed skating medals since 2002.
Bergsma, Bowe and Manganello narrowly edged out Canada for bronze in the B final – also known as the third-place race. They shaved more than eight seconds off their semifinal time to best the Canadians by less than a half-second. It was a remarkable race.
Perhaps, though, the disparity between U.S. times was more about the semifinal than the final. And perhaps it was by design.
To look into the case, let’s begin back in the quarterfinals. The U.S., with a lineup of Bergsma, Bowe and Manganello – the same three that would eventually win the B final – qualified for the semis with the fourth-fastest time of eight contenders: 2:59.75.
The team pursuit competition works like any knockout-style tournament would, with two teams racing against each other and only one moving on. So in the semis, the U.S. drew the top-ranked Netherlands, which had set an Olympic record (2:55.61) in the quarterfinals.
With little hope of topping the speed skating juggernaut, and with the semifinals and finals less than two hours apart, the U.S. switched up its lineup for the semi. It rested Bowe, one of its top two skaters, and replaced her with Schoutens.
And rather than taking turns as pace-setters, as teams normally do to divvy up the workload, the U.S. women tasked Schoutens with the taxing job of leading the three for much of the race. That eased the burden on Bowe and Manganello. It also, though, added almost eight seconds to the U.S. time: 3:07.28.
It’s not as if the U.S. skaters sauntered around the track. They didn’t blatantly throw the race. But 3:07.28 was worse than all eight quarterfinal times by two-and-a-half seconds. It was worse than the slowest of the other three semifinal times by five-and-a-half seconds. Of the 24 combined runs in the quarters, semis and finals, it was faster than only the losing time in the D final – and only faster by 0.02 seconds.
And then, less than two hours later, the U.S. was back on the track and out to an early lead against Canada. Bowe was back in the lineup in place of Schoutens. The U.S. nearly ran out of gas late, but held on for victory, and therefore for bronze, by 0.44 seconds. Bowe, who was rested, and Bergsma and Manganello, who expended less energy than usual in the semi, had just enough legs.
So did the U.S. essentially give up a shot at gold or silver to improve its chances at a bronze? Sure seems like it. Bowe more or less confirmed as much after the race. “The coaching staff put together a great plan for us,” she said. “We obviously thought that resting me through the semi round and really fighting for that bronze medal was the most realistic goal for us. We wanted to come away with a medal.”
And did the scheme help? Sure seems like it, especially when you consider Canada used the same lineup in both the semi and the B final.
You can question whether the decision, if it was a conscious one, is in the spirit of Olympic competition – and some speed skating fans did on social media after the semi. But you can’t question the logic behind it. And you certainly can’t question the bronze medals that will hang around the necks of those four women tonight.
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