Meet the most dysfunctional team in Sochi

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports
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Shani Davis of the U.S. looks dejected after competing in the men's 1,500-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
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SOCHI, Russia Shani Davis was bristling with frustration and trying to keep it in check, talking about how this Winter Olympics will haunt him for the rest of his life. Brian Hansen's coach was starting to weep as she spoke of the catastrophic turmoil that turned a bunch of predicted gold medals into a collective and embarrassing failure.

Joey Mantia tried to find a polite way of saying that his colleagues have yet to grasp that there is no "I" in the word "team," and coach Ryan Shimabukuro was dismissing the avalanche of criticism as nothing but the talk of a "pothead."

Welcome to the United States speedskating squad, perhaps the most dysfunctional team of the Sochi Games, in which chaos reigns and the high hopes that preceded the Olympics has turned into blame, anger and frustration.

Davis the two-time Olympic silver medalist, current world-record holder and owner of the season's best time in the 1500 meters could only place in 11th here on Saturday, three days after he failed to defend his gold medals in the 1000 meters from the two previous Games.

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Hansen, another legitimate contender in the 1500, placed seventh with Mantia finishing 22nd and Jonathan Kuck 37th. So with seven of long-track speedskating's 12 events complete, the U.S. is 0-for-Sochi, despite coming in as favorites in several races and popular picks to win at least eight medals.

"I think this was a fantastic U.S. team. There is incredible talent," said Nancy Swider-Peltz, Hansen's coach and a four-time winter Olympian. "This was an incredible team that should have won the medals that were expected, hands down."

"It is a terrible heartbreak," she added. "A lot of things have been thrown at this team in the end."

The campaign has been a catalog of ineptitude and humiliation. The U.S. thought it had an edge on the competition by designing high-tech race suits with the help of a defense contractor and kept them hidden from the competition until the Games. Instead, the joke was on the Americans. The athletes didn't like the feel of the new suits while failing to win medals over the past week, and a last-minute decision was made to change them ahead of Saturday's events.

"I had to deal with a lot of things that I normally would not have to deal with," Davis said. "At World Cup races, you are not trying to figure out what is slow or fast. You go to the line and you skate as hard as you can.

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"The paper doesn't say, 'Because of suit or lack of confidence' or what. It says eighth [in the 1000] and 11th. That is what I have to live with for the rest of my life."

Davis was among the favorites in both the 1000 and 1500, while on the women's side Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe were ranked first and second in the world in the 1000 but placed only seventh and eighth, respectively.

Talk over the team's poor performance got coach Shimabukuro all riled up. In response to a report that the U.S. team performs far better in events held at altitude, he dismissed the accusation by questioning the claim's legitimacy.

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"So where people are getting this information from they're getting it from a pothead because they don't know," he said.

If U.S. Speedskating announced eight months ago that it would compete in diamond-encrusted Saran wrap, the news would barely have registered on the national sporting psyche. But now, the design of the team's suits has made national headlines big enough for equipment manufacturer Under Armour to issue a public statement explaining why the suits were kept under wraps.

"The reasoning behind that was we wanted to keep the suit a secret in case other people found out about it and they had enough time to switch their technology," Hansen said. "But at the same time we lose the experience of racing with it. And for something like the Olympics, I think that's difficult."

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The suit fiasco was only one problem. Just as troublesome was the fact that this is not a happy team. It is a house divided. Mantia said things were "different these days" while pointing out that previous American squads had spent hundreds of training hours together swapping tips and advice.

"Everybody trains separately, so obviously that is a little bit detrimental," Mantia said. "We don't have any camaraderie, maybe, as the Dutch who train together every day and learn a lot from each other."

The Netherlands has enjoyed extraordinary success in Sochi, but had to make do with silver in the 1500 on Saturday. Poland's Zbigniew Brodka, skating alongside Davis in the fourth to last group, took gold with a time of 1:45:006, just three thousandths of a second faster than Dutch skater Koen Verweij. Canada's Denny Morrison took bronze.

While those three were receiving their flowers atop the podium, the blame game in the U.S. was going on in the bowels of Adler Arena. Hansen and Davis were in one corner talking about the team meeting Friday night when it was decided to revert to the team's old suits. Swider-Peltz was criticizing the federation for conducting a pre-Olympic training camp at altitude.

An old-school coach, Swider-Peltz understands the value of meticulous preparation based on scientific evidence but doesn't feel she should be bound by it.

"I am tired of not being believed," said Swider-Peltz, her voice cracking while wiping away a tear from her eye as she told of the unsuccessful battle to avoid the training camp in Collalbo, Italy. "I am tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience are not good enough. You can't teach a scientist to be a coach.

"I fought tooth and nail. I fought for days, I wrote emails. I cried. I went crazy. I demanded. I did not want to go [to Collalbo]."

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The U.S. skaters haven't much looked like they want to be here, either. The focus on external issues seems to have had a collective draining effect on them. Even the four-time Olympian Davis seemed to have some of the usual fire missing from his eyes.

He cut a forlorn figure at the end of his 1500, cruising around the track with his hands on his knees for an entire lap and his face a picture of disbelief. He broke his stance only to pat eventual champion Brodka on the back.

Davis is a legend in the sport, but this could be it for him unless he either skates next weekend's team pursuit which he has never done before or drags his body to Pyeongchang in four years' time.

Once reluctant to talk to the media and occasionally gruff when he did, Davis has finally been embraced by the U.S. public, and he came to these Games with a wave of support behind him.

"It kills me inside to know that the attention I am getting now, these are kinds of the things I always wanted," Davis said. "I wanted to be a speedskater that the Americans knew, loved, followed and cheered for. Now in 2014 I had the whole country behind me. I had everything going into it, but I come away with nothing."

With the way things are going, the U.S. will come away empty-handed. Well, at least in terms of medals. Because right now it looks as if the American speedskaters will leave Russia with only a truckload of acrimony, disharmony, frustration and regret.

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