Team pursuit not loved by many speedskaters

Updated: February 15, 2006, 7:53 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- The U.S. speedskating team bears certain similarities to the old Red Sox, who were infamous for 25 players leaving the clubhouse in 25 cabs.

Asked about this team's makeup compared to previous squads, four-time Olympic veteran K.C. Boutiette said, "There are 10 men and 10 women on this team, and when this is all over, I can guarantee there's not many I will call up to ask how they're doing."

K.C. Boutiette
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaK.C. Boutiette thought he should not have been in the back of the race during Wednesday's team pursuit.

We can only hope that Boutiette's wife, 2002 bronze medalist Jennifer Rodriguez, makes the cut.

Then again, Boutiette just might welcome a call of support from his teammates after Wednesday's round of the three-man pursuit. The U.S. failed to get out of the quarterfinals, when Boutiette brought up the rear in a loser-out heat against Italy, costing Chad Hedrick a chance of matching Eric Heiden's five gold medals in one Olympics.

"K.C. was crying when he came up to me after the race and he said he gave it his all," Hedrick said. "He said the toughest thing for him was having to live with knowing he fell behind with two laps to go."

The U.S. trio led the Italians by nearly a half-second midway through the race, but lost that lead when Boutiette became separated from his teammates in the final laps. Because of drag and aerodynamics, once a skater gets separated from his teammates, he's pretty much toast. By the time Hedrick and Ryan Leveille Cox crossed the finish line, Boutiette was a good five meters behind them.

"We thought we had it won," Leveille Cox said. "We didn't realize K.C. was so many meters behind."

"It was like doing three laps on my own," said the 35-year-old Boutiette. "When it gets to a certain point, your body does give out, and I'm not a young buck anymore. I think our best bet was to have Chad [pushing] in the back, which is what I said before [the race]...

"It really does work when you push somebody. Unfortunately, I didn't get to be pushed. I didn't get pushed once the whole time, so I was pretty much on my own."

Hedrick was so upset after the race that he left the arena without speaking to reporters, but had calmed down two hours later, when he did a teleconference call. He acknowledged that it would have been better strategy if he had skated at the back the final laps to help push Boutiette.

OK, enough of inside skating jargon. The bottom line is the U.S. probably would be racing for a medal Thursday had Shani Davis chosen to skate in the pursuit.

Davis is one of America's top skaters, but he avoided the pursuit to concentrate on his individual events instead. Boutiette is rarely shy to complain about anything, but he said "no comment" when asked about Davis' decision. Hedrick said it was none of his business how Davis prepares for his races, but "every chance you get to skate for your country, you should take it. That's just my opinion."

Obviously, Davis doesn't see it that way. When he talked about his decision over the weekend, he said, "None of my teammates helped me get to where I am. I worked hard to get where I am, and I'm going to do what's best for me."

You can feel the love, can't you?

Davis' me-first attitude sounds harsh, but bear in mind that skating is primarily an individual sport. He obviously sees an individual event as more important than a new Olympic event that's normally held at the end of a World Cup competition for fun as much as anything. Skating in the pursuit Wednesday and Thursday might not have cost his body much Saturday in the 1,000 meters, but it doesn't take much. A second here, a tenth of a second there can make the difference between winning a gold medal and winning no medal.

"I think a lot of us would prefer the pursuit were at the end of the Games and not in the middle," U.S. skater Catherine Raney said. "We compare it almost to skating a full race weekend. To skate four races in two days is taxing, there's no doubt."

To avoid all this, the pursuit should to be moved back to the end of the Games. That way, the skaters can concentrate on their individual events first and then compete for a team medal without hesitation or regret.

And then they can stand on three different podiums to receive their medals.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com