Cheering for Dutch speed skater was easy for Team USA’s Heather Richardson

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SOCHI, Russia – Nearly all eyes fixed on orange at the conclusion of the 5000m at the Adler Arena on Saturday night.

Except for those of U.S. speed skater Heather Richardson.

While the Dutch celebrated a podium sweep led by champion Sven Kramer, she stared at a video scoreboard for two minutes with her phone at the ready, waiting for results.

Here’s why:

Dutch skater Jorrit Bergsma took bronze and joined Kramer and Jan Blokhuijsen on the podium, the second time the Netherlands has swept the medals in a single event. Multiple boisterous orange sections reveled.

Even Richardson, in black U.S. Speed skating garb and matching nail polish, grinned next to U.S. teammates in the athletes’ section. (The top U.S. finisher was high school student Emery Lehman in 16th.)

The only person who seemed slightly disappointed? Bergsma.

“I came here for gold,” he said.

***

Richardson and Bergsma will say their wedding vows sometime next year. For better, for worse, they’ve shared experiences watching each other skate the past three seasons.

It was a little different Saturday, it being their first Olympics together.

Richardson emerged into the stands just minutes before Bergsma skated and watched Kramer throw down an Olympic record time of 6 minutes, 10.76 seconds. Then came Bergsma, a 6-foot-3, 160-pound ultra marathon skater best known for beating Kramer in the 10,000m at this very arena at last year’s World Championships.

Richardson scooched to the edge of her seat.

The starter’s gun sounded.

Her eyes followed Bergsma around the 400-meter oval. He passed her shortly after finishing each lap. The first few were blistering, 29 seconds or better.

***

Bergsma is 28, one year older than Kramer, and has faced a gargantuan task of squeezing into the Dutch distance picture with Kramer and three-time Olympic medalist Bob de Jong, 37. The emergence of Blokhuijsen, 24, has complicated matters. (Bergsma tried to find a way around it four years ago in an aborted attempt to qualify for Kazakhstan for the Vancouver Olympics, with other Dutch skaters. They gave it up after learning it would have cost them their Dutch citizenship.)

He began dating Richardson 20 months after he missed the Vancouver Games. The American from High Point, N.C., took the initiative, breaking the ice with a Twitter message.

That led to texting, Skyping and dating the last three World Cup seasons as both blossomed as Olympic medal threats. Bergsma in the lung-searing 5000m and 10,000m and Richardson in the 500m and 1000m sprints.

Bergsma proposed in April during a vacation with the Richardsons in Myrtle Beach, S.C. His plan was to sneak onto the beach outside where they stayed.

“He actually took my phone down there with him and he actually called my mom right before he was about to do it so she was out on the balcony to see it as well,” Richardson told NBCOlympics. “Then he was calling his phone that was still in our room, and I’m like ‘Why is his phone ringing? I don’t even know where he is right now,’ and so he had to call like three times and I finally answered the phone like, ‘Uh hello,’ and he was like, ‘Go to the balcony.’”

They plan to get married next year. Richardson has talked about starting a family and moving to the Netherlands, but the former is far off and the latter isn’t set yet.

They skate for now. Pretty well, too.

Bergsma, who will get another shot at Kramer in the 10,000m on Feb. 18, has set personal records in the 1500m, 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m this season.

Richardson, too, is strong across distances with World Cup podiums in the 500m, 1000m and 1500m this season. The 2013 World Sprint Champion is arguably the gold-medal favorite in the 1000m.

She’s in her second Olympics after switching from inline skating and had a best of sixth at the Vancouver Games.

***

Bergsma skated past Richardson 12 times in Saturday’s race. Eleven times, she leaned forward and yelled words of encouragement to him.

Bergsma, who knew Richardson was there but could not make out her voice, faded over the final three laps and finished 5.9 seconds behind Kramer, slotting into second place.

“I felt at the end, if I want to skate for gold, I have to accelerate a little bit,” Bergsma said. “I tried to do that, but then I blew myself up. I lost a lot in the last laps.”

Jorrit Bergsma
Jorrit BergsmaAP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh

Bergsma lost more with the next pair as Blokhuijsen skated .95 faster.

“Silver I gave away,” Bergsma said. “It became bronze.”

Richardson didn’t see it that way. She was inspired.

“I’m excited for him,” she said, “and he makes me excited for races.”

They’ll switch places Monday when Richardson goes in the 500m, seeking the first U.S. women’s speed skating medal since 2002. Like Bergsma, she is a medal contender and would savor being able to share the Olympic medalist experience with her fiance.

“I think I might be a little more happy to get my medal,” she joked, “but I’m so proud of him.”

A Winter Olympics athlete couple story would be remiss without a mention of Valentine’s Day plans. There are no speed skating events on Feb. 14, but they haven’t set anything yet during coffee dates and bike rides together in the Olympic Village.

“With the races we also need our focus, and so we cannot enjoy too much with each other,” Bergsma said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to find the balance between focus on the races and being with each other.”

Lindsey Vonn sets date for proposal to enter men’s race

ALTENMARKT/ZAUCHENSEE, AUSTRIA - JANUARY 15: Lindsey Vonn of USA celebrates during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on January 15, 2017 in Altenmarkt/Zauchensee, Austria (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Ski Team plans to submit a proposal in the spring for Lindsey Vonn to be able to race against men in November 2018, according to the Denver Post.

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” Vonn said, according to the newspaper. “I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

Vonn’s idea is to race in Lake Louise, Canada, an annual late fall stop on both the men’s and women’s World Cup schedules. The men generally race in Lake Louise one week before the women do.

Vonn’s greatest success has come at Lake Louise, with 18 victories in 41 downhill and super-G starts dating to 2001.

Vonn previously requested in 2012 to be able to race against men in Lake Louise, but that was denied by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The federation said then “that one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.”

It doesn’t look like the federation’s stance has changed.

“You can set up a day where a female racer can compete against men racers, just as a show, but it has nothing to do with competition,” FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal said, according to the Denver Post. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the next years — no driving forces to urge a change like that. This is something the teams could do also in training. But why would you want to have a competition in this direction?

“I just don’t see the interest. For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Vonn raced for the first time in 322 days on Sunday, finishing 13th in a World Cup downhill in Austria. It was actually an encouraging result, as Vonn said she wasn’t skiing to her limit in her first race back.

Her upcoming goals are to compete in the 2018 Olympics, after missing Sochi due to injury, and earn 11 more World Cup wins to break Ingemar Stenmark‘s career record of 86 victories. She can overtake Stenmark next season if she stays healthy and continues to win at her usual pace.

Vonn said in the spring that she would postpone retirement by one year and compete in the 2018-19 season if it meant being able to race the men.

But Skaardal’s comments suggest that won’t be possible.

“It’s definitely frustrating to hear that he said that, because I respect Atle very much,” Vonn said, according to the Denver Post. “He does a great job on the World Cup, and he is a former racer, so he understands. It’s disappointing to hear he doesn’t support it. But maybe if we organize something and a plan is put in front of him, maybe he would change his mind. I think most of the men are supporting me.”

Vonn is expected to race this weekend in a downhill and super-G in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, streamed live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Bode Miller plans to race next season, U.S. coach says

Wayne Gretzky compares Hayley Wickenheiser to NHL legend

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The greatest male hockey player of all time paid the greatest female player of all time quite the compliment at her retirement ceremony Saturday.

“You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill,” Wayne Gretzky said to Hayley Wickenheiser. “The only other person, the greatest player to ever live, I think he would be happy if I said you were the female Gordie Howe. Congratulations.”

The Canadian legend Wickenheiser announced her retirement Friday, after six Olympics and four gold medals. On Saturday, she was honored before a Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers game. A highlight was a speech by Gretzky, who now works in the Oilers’ front office.

Wickenheiser’s first Olympics, Nagano 1998, marked the only Winter Games for Gretzky. Gretzky played in the first Olympics with NHL participation in Nagano, finishing fourth with Canada, and retired in 1999 without an Olympic medal.

“You’ve opened so many doors for so many young girls to be able to one day win a gold medal,” Gretzky said to Wickenheiser. “To me, that’s more important than anything.”

Wickenheiser then took the mic at center ice and reciprocated.

“A big part of why I play the game is because of this man standing right here, Wayne Gretzky,” she said, later adding, according to Canadian media, “In Salt Lake City [2002] when we won the gold medal, the first two people I saw when we stepped off the ice were Wayne and [former Oilers All-Star defenseman] Kevin [Lowe] standing in our dressing room cheering for us.”

As part of the Wickenheiser ceremony, a tribute video was played including messages from Canadian Olympian and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

MORE: Amanda Kessel sets sights on 2018 Olympics