Shani Davis of USA in first place, Stefan Groothuis of Netherlands, Kjeld Nuis of Netherlands for second and third place. Men’s 1000m Overall. Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images)
This weekend was the 2012 ISU Speedskating World Cup season finale, held in Berlin, Germany. The 2011-2012 season is almost complete, with only one event remaining – the 2012 World Single Distance Championships March 22-25th.
Because this weekend’s event was the finale of the season, all placements were worth 50% more points; and since many of the overall totals were so close, in several races the top positions were upended. For those of us cheering on the US team, this weekend was a roller coaster. Things looked grim in the beginning – both Shani Davis and Tucker Fredricks lost overall race leads – but there were some great finishes by the end of the weekend.
On Friday, the men’s and women’s first 500m, men’s 1500m, and women’s 3,000m set the stage for what appeared to be a rough weekend. In the 500m, the US’s Tucker Fredricks and Heather Richardson both failed to reach the podium. Richardson, who is really more of a 1000m specialist, finished 9th; while Fredricks finished 14th. Fredricks went into Friday’s race in the lead for the 500m overall world cup title and despite not finishing as high as he wanted, still held that position at the end of the day.
In the women’s 3km, the little engine that could, Czech sensation Martina Sablikova, fought off a huge late season assault by the very strong German team to complete an undefeated season. In each of the six world cup 3km races Sablikova faced a different threat, and each time took the top podium. Jilleanne Rookard was the top American in the event, finishing 13th in the race and 16th in the overall qualification.
The men’s 1500m was an absolute heartbreaker, but a thrilling race to watch. The US’s Shani Davis went into Friday’s race with a small but meaningful lead in the overall points total. He only had to finish on the podium to take the overall win, but just didn’t have it in a head-to-head matchup against Norwegian Håvard Bøkko. Davis found himself in 6th at the end of the day, Bøkko took the win and the overall 1500m title.
Saturday again saw the US sprinters struggling to get on the podium, but the US team was not shut out of the medals entirely. In the women’s 500m, Richardson finished 8th, which landed the former inliner in 9th in the overall – a fantastic season’s finish in a year that started with a knee surgery. Fredricks, too, had an amazing season, but has been a bit up and down over the last several world cups. He finished 8th in Saturday’s race which dropped him from first to third in the world cup overall.
The US had no skaters competing in the women’s 1500m A group, which saw Christine Nesbitt from Canada take the race and overall win.
In the men’s 5km, the US’s Jonathan Kuck proved that he is a force to be reckoned with and a true medal contender for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The 21-year-old won the bronze against the biggest names in distance speedskating. Astoundingly, the Netherlands Bob de Jong, took the overall title at 35. Counting his years winning at the junior world level, de Jong has been one of the dominant distances skaters for nearly two decades.
On the final day of the final world cup of the 2011-12 season, the US team finished brilliantly. In the women’s 1000m Heather Richardson had a beautiful race to finish 2nd behind Canadian world record holder Christine Nesbitt. Richardson’s finish secured her 2nd in the 1000m overall and showed what an amazing talent the 22-year-old High Point, NC native truly is. Despite knee surgery just months before the start of the season, Richardson was able to fight back to the top of the world. She is in great position to win multiple medals in 2014.
Shani Davis got some vindication on Sunday as well, winning the men’s 1000m race and securing his overall title. Davis started the season in rocky fashion – he didn’t medal in this distance in the first three competitions. The Olympic gold medalist turned it around during the second half of the year however, and hasn’t been defeated in his last four world cup 1000m events.
The ISU had an interesting format for the distance races on Sunday, holding both men’s and women’s mass start races, as well as men’s and women’s team pursuit. The US didn’t take any medals in the women’s events or the men’s mass start, but the US did bring home the bronze in the team pursuit.
Overall, it has been a great season for the US team. There have been some bright spots in both the sprint and distance events and if everyone on the team can have a solid two weeks of preparation going into the World Single Distance Championships, it is entirely possible the team could bring home up to a half dozen medals.