Thoughts on Sochi:
The results from these 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for U.S. Skaters hadn’t dipped so low since Sarajevo 1984, when no medals were won. Typically the US Team has been winning, in a single Olympics, some more some less, in the area of 4 long track and 4 short track medals. To be shut out in long track and win only the relay in short track, is not only unusual, but is indicative of a deeper problem. Expectations were high and rightly so, because of World Cup results and US Championship results leading up to the games. The team had won 28 medals in 4 World Cups (19 at altitude, 9 at sea level), set 1 world record (altitude), 2 track records (lowland), many altitude personal bests, but a few lowland personal records also by comparison.
We all have support networks that we rely upon, but if there are limited resources, we are then forced to work within such limitations. In the US, the governing body is US Speedskating (USS). If you are selected to be on the National Team and choose to use the support, you must live and train in Salt Lake City (SLC) at altitude. You must also use the coaches provided to you by the organization.
The Sochi Olympics were contested at sea level. About a third of the Olympic team trains in Milwaukee (sea level) with independent coaching and virtually no support from USS. The fall World Cup trials as well as the Olympic trials were held in SLC 5/6 weeks prior to the opening of the Olympics in Sochi. This favored the SLC skaters to make the team and forced training in SLC which proved counterproductive for adjustment to Sochi type ice. There is a significant difference in effective skating technique in altitude versus sea level. There is also a physiological benefit to training at altitude and racing at sea level, but the physiological advantage declines in 1-3 weeks dependent on the altitude receptiveness of the athlete. The technical advantages that can be gained from pushing heavier lowland ice (arguably) are a greater advantage than that of the physiological advantage gained from altitude training that gradually loses its effectiveness once down from altitude.
Then there was the skin suit controversy. The clothing manufacturer Under Armor developed a new skin suit, but the US High Performance Team did not want to race test it for fear of losing an advantage of what they assumed to be a jump in technology over the competing teams. Because of testing blunders, there were features of this skin suit (still to be determined) that made it slower. It was erroneously tested on a mannequin as opposed to different sized athletes moving in their unique technique and styles. By having had race tested these suits earlier, such discrepancies would have been discovered and corrected. Unfortunately the negative effect of the suit (arguably adding drag) could have added a fatigue factor to the skaters legs during the first races in Sochi. Switching to their fall World Cup suits may have helped but there was no “control” factor for comparative analysis.
Another factor in the results was the requirement for the entire team, including independently coached skaters, to train at altitude on an outdoor rink in Italy 3 weeks before the games opened. The combination of outdoor ice and cold temperatures potentially drained skaters energy levels, initiating a fatigue that was followed by an inappropriate travel schedule that again was added upon by having to walk too much once in the Olympic village and venues. The Collabo conditions also potentially threw them off their game technically because of having to deal with the wind, cold, and ice of a different feel. For the Milwaukee skaters transitioning to altitude, there was that additional stress to challenged the body. All these factors can cause similar effects to over-training. Piggybacked on these stressors, several poorly planned travel times in the early morning, team processing, and a late sponsor dinner immediately following Italy added to the brewing perfect storm.
The basic principles of periodization, tapering, and complete recovery before an important competition were compromised here. In my training, I only make minor changes if necessary prior to racing. That principle was also violated considering the change of ice conditions in Sochi. It is easier to train at sea level ice which is ” heavier ice” and then transition to altitude ice which has more glide per stroke, than the other way around. In addition, logistics must also be considered. After arriving at Sochi the unusual, relative to what the skaters are accustomed to, could have and should have been avoided using bikes. The Dutch, by comparison, had planned well ahead with 2 bikes per skater. The second week the US finally offered bikes to be purchased by the athletes, but then it was too late for recovery. The independent coaches had been speaking up, raising questions, and seriously challenging the compromising of these basic principles but to no avail. Unfortunately, both National Team and privately coached skaters paid the price with a once in a lifetime opportunity to shine at the Olympics …….wasted due to poor decisions by the High Performance Team and team management.
Thanks for the contributions to these thoughts on Sochi were made by
Nancy Swider-Peltz, Sr.