Americans miss chance at 1,500m gold
RICHMOND, British Columbia -- For the second Olympic Games in a row, speedskating's so-called race of kings ended in checkmate for the two Americans vying for the throne.
But there was a huge difference in the way Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick felt when they crossed the finish line of the 1,500-meter race after fighting the relatively slow track like thoroughbreds ankle-deep in mud.
Davis could not best the time set two pairs before him by Dutch veteran Mark Tuitert and will go home with another silver medal in his favorite race, the crown prince once again. Gracious in defeat, Davis nonetheless admitted that the sting of this loss is likely all the motivation he needs to stay in the sport for another four years. He put his head in his hands, half-laughing, half-incredulous, as he noted he would be 31 at the next Winter Games.
"I struggled the whole race," said Davis, whose medal was his fourth in Olympic competition. "I couldn't build up enough speed, but it was a real solid effort for me. This happened to me in Torino and now it happens to me again four years later in Vancouver. I have to accept it and hopefully I can be stronger from it."
Hedrick tossed his goggles in front of him as the digital display flashed his time, revealing eyes hollow with disappointment and self-knowledge. His vision of what he freely called "the picture-perfect storybook ending I wanted to put on my career" had just vanished.
"I used my heart, not my technique," Hedrick said. "I was trying to use both, and it just didn't work out."
The 32-year-old Texan, a surprise bronze medal winner in the 1,000-meter event here, did everything he could to channel his prerace feelings constructively. But he cried even while consulting with the team psychologist, and U.S. coach Derek Parra said Hedrick's eyes welled up again just before the start.
"I think he was maybe just engulfed in the moment and it took a little bit too much out of him, rather than just seeing the track and then feeling the moment afterward," Parra said.
Hedrick was blunt about his state of mind, and the blunders it caused.
"I was a wreck, a little bit," he said. "I lost control of the race and forgot all the things I'd been working on technically, and panicked because I had a guy who had a really fast start and I didn't want to let him get too far ahead of me.
"You never know how you're going to feel until you're in that locker room. Does anybody know they're going to cry at their own wedding? No, same type of thing. I'm in the warm-up room thinking about it and then all of a sudden it's time to go in the middle of the track and put your skates on, and you know what? You thought you were ready emotionally, but you're not."
Hedrick won a full set of medals -- gold in the 5,000-meter race, silver in the 10,000 and bronze in the 1,500 -- at the 2006 Games, and had looked to be the only athlete capable of challenging Davis here. The two had raced at the 1,500-meter distance six times this season, with Davis emerging victorious four times. Hedrick's two wins came by a combined total of 0.07 of a second, but his victory at the sea-level oval in Milwaukee last fall was viewed as a harbinger by some tea-leaf readers trying to predict the results in Vancouver. Hedrick's other narrow win came at the World Cup in Calgary on one of the fastest tracks in the world.
Seeing Hedrick digging with his toes rather than powering from his heels, Parra tried to give him visual cues and yelled, "Sit! Sit!" but knew his message would probably get lost in the din of the Oval and Hedrick's own jangling nerves.
Neither Davis nor Hedrick got a boost from their pairings, and Tuitert did, starting in the outer lane and twice drafting effectively off eventual bronze medalist Havard Bokko of Norway. But Davis, who said he glanced daily at a card he carries that says "underdog," made it clear he would offer no excuses for falling short in an event in which he holds the world record.
"I was really fired up going into this race," Davis said. "I was really hoping I could cap off these Olympics with a victory, but I just didn't have enough."
Parra, like many, thought it might be a two-horse race for gold.
"If you would have told me coming into this day that we'd leave with one medal and it would be silver, I would have been surprised," he said. "Chad had a great 1,000, which I thought gave him a lot of confidence, and Shani's been virtually unbeatable in the event all year."
The storyline was irresistible: Davis and Hedrick taking gold and silver in whatever order, then celebrating collegially -- as they did after winning gold and bronze in the 1,000 meters here -- four years after uneasily sharing the podium and oozing hostility toward each other at the news conference afterward.
But that plotline evaporated like snow in the Vancouver sunshine. Now one man will have a chance to rewrite his own ending and the other won't. Hedrick made a point of saying he wasn't exiting the stage in anger.
"I came up short and I'm man enough to admit that," said Hedrick, who will compete one more time here in the team pursuit event next week. "But just because I got sixth today doesn't mean I haven't had great memories here in Vancouver. This race doesn't define me."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.