KEARNS, Utah (AP) — Shani Davis and Heather Richardson will head to the Sochi Olympics with plenty of hype.
Looks as if they're up to the challenge. Davis and Richardson cruised to victories in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. speedskating trials Tuesday, leaving little doubt they are the top skaters on a team that should have plenty of medal potential in February.
"That was a really great race," Davis said, beaming about his performance at the Utah Olympic Oval. "I'm really happy with my fitness and conditioning right now. I'm going to look to improve in certain areas, but I have plenty of time to do that before Sochi."
Davis already had qualified in the 1,000 — the race he won at the last two Olympics. He took first in the 1,500 with a time of 1 minute, 43.20 seconds, clearly eager to improve on the silver medals he settled for in that event at both Turin and Vancouver.
"That would be a big dream come true, to be able to win a gold medal in the 1,500," Davis said. "I love that race so much because when I was a junior skater, the first race I won was the 1,500." Richardson crossed the line in 1:54.19 to capture the women's race, beating friendly rival Brittany Bowe for the third straight time at the trials. They also went 1-2 in 500 and 1,000, surely setting up more memorable duels to come in Sochi.
"You know, she beat me three times in the fall," Richardson said, breaking into a big smile. "We're going back and forth. It's all fun." Richardson has always been stronger in the two shorter races, but she's starting to feel like she could pull out a medal contender in the 1,500, as well.
"I think it's starting to catch up," Richardson said. "I'm excited to see how it goes." Brian Hansen finished second to Davis in 1:43.70. The other two spots for Sochi were claimed by Joey Mantia (1:44.41) and Jonathan Kuck (1:45.29).
Three Olympic berths were up for grabs on the women's side. Jilleanne Rookard took the remaining position in 1:57.70. Bowe came into the trials ranked ahead of Richardson in the 1,500 standings, but she wasn't disappointed at all in her performance during the trials. After all, she wasn't even skating before the Vancouver Olympics, deciding to take up the sport after an inlining career and playing college basketball at Florida Atlantic.
"Four years ago, I couldn't even skate on the ice," she said. "My goal was to make the Olympics and to hopefully get on the podium, and I'm one step closer after this week. The pain is worth it and the pain will continue to be worth it."
Davis, Richardson and Bowe will all go into the Olympics as leading medal contenders on the big oval, and Hansen also has the potential to get on the podium. Throw in Mantia and sprint specialist Tucker Fredricks, two other skaters who have World Cup wins this season, and it's not unreasonable to think the Americans could make a run at their great team from the 2002 Winter Games, which captured three golds and eight medals overall at this track in suburban Salt Lake City.
"We have a strong team," Davis said, drawing out his words for emphasis. "I'm sure we're only going to continue to get stronger." Davis has switched up his training methods this season, looking to peak in February rather than be at his best right from the start of the World Cup season.
At the last two Olympics, he was favored in the 1,500 but came up short by a combined 0.70 seconds. He would like nothing more than to add an Olympic victory in that race to his already impressive legacy.
"Somehow, some way, it evades me at the Olympics," Davis said. "It just gives me that much more motivation to strive for and perfect it. It's all about winning it in February, not so much about winning it now. I'm sitting in a good position, pretty strong. Hopefully in Sochi, I'll be the best."
No new members were added to the Olympic team on Tuesday. Everyone who qualified had previously earned spots in other events. The final members will be determined on Wednesday, when one berth is available in both the women's 5,000 and the men's 10,000.
Already, the team includes skaters from Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and two from Ocala, Fla. — Bowe and Mantia. "It's unfortunate that inline doesn't get a ton of recognition, but without that none of us would be here," Bowe said. "Half of us are from the South and never even heard of ice skating."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963