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U.S. Struggles To Find Skating Groove In Sochi


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It was another disappointing finish in speed skating for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. American phenom Shani Davis came in 11th place in the 1500 meter, a race for which he's won two silver medals. The focus is now shifted from the American skaters' performance to their suits.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from Sochi.


SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: The difference between first and second in this 1500-meter race is only three 1,000ths of a second. Poland's Zbigniew Brodka got the gold; the silver medal went to Koen Verweij of the Netherlands; and Canada's Denny Morrison placed third. Way in 11th place was Shani Davis.

SHANI DAVIS: After having one of my best openers in my life, not being able to find the speed, you know, it plays with me in my head, and it makes me question some of the things that I've done leading up to these races.

GLINTON: What would he do differently in these Olympics? Well, for six of the seven speed skating races here in Sochi, the American team had been wearing a new skating suit designed by Under Armour and Lockheed Martin. They hadn't raced in the new suit until these Olympics. And race after race, the American team got clobbered. Eventually, Davis and his teammates began to question the decision to use the new suits.

DAVIS: I think that in any scenario, you want to try something out before you try it on one of the bigger race stages of our life. If you have a bad performance on a World Cup because of a suit, then it's OK, you switch the suit. But you can't do that at the Olympics. There's too much riding on it. Too many things are a factor, and, yeah, you just can't do that.

GLINTON: After the string of poor results, the team held a meeting and voted to go back to their old suits, the ones they already raced in and felt comfortable with, also designed by Under Armour. But even with the old suits, the highest placed American, Brian Hansen, came in seventh. U.S. speed skating issued a statement, saying it was confident in all the suit designs and is constantly evaluating all aspects of race preparation.

The four U.S. skaters who raced today say the drama over the suit was a distraction and, to some degree, ate away at their confidence.

JILLERT ANEMA: Yeah, the confidence is deadly. If you don't have confidence in your material, it's deadly.

GLINTON: Jillert Anema is a coach with the Netherland's speed skating team. He says lack of confidence is like a cancer that can grow in a team.

ANEMA: And it's the same with the American skaters. They are very good skaters. Normally, they, yeah, they always are good when important match is on.

GLINTON: Joey Mantia on the U.S. team says suit controversy aside, it really comes down to the individual skater.

JOEY MANTIA: It's all about the feel on the ice. If you don't have that feel for the ice, it honestly doesn't matter if you're in a trash bag or if you're in the fastest suit in the world. You're going to produce crappy results. But there's no way to know for sure if it is the fastest. Obviously, in the wind tunnel it is, you know, but skating's not a wind tunnel.

GLINTON: None of the skaters criticize the suits outwardly. In the end, they all blame their own performances, including Shani Davis.

DAVIS: I had the whole country behind me. I had all kind of really cool sponsors and people following me, and I had everything going into it, but I come away with nothing to show them and give back to them and say thank you for believing in me and following me. So I'm really disappointed.

GLINTON: Davis says he's going to take a while to think about his future. He says he won't be putting on skates or a skating suit for at least a few days. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton
Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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