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.”

More Olympic distance-running medalists banned for doping

Gamze Bulut
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MONACO (AP) — Turkish runner Elvan Abeylegesse has been banned for doping and stands to lose two Olympic silver medals.

The IAAF says Abeylegesse tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol in a retest of a sample she gave at the 2007 World Championships.

She has been banned for two years and had her results wiped out from 2007-09.

Abeylegesse won Olympic silver medals in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2008 Beijing Games and silver in the 10,000m at the 2007 world championships.

The IAAF also said it had imposed a four-year ban on another Turkish runner, Gamze Bulut, for a violation of its biological passport program. Bulut won 1500m silver at the 2012 London Olympics.

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Maria Sharapova not fully committed to 2020 Olympic run

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The rumors and reports have been out for months, but asked directly, Maria Sharapova wasn’t immediately quite sure how to answer when asked about going for the 2020 Olympics.

“Ooh, I don’t, umm,” Sharapova said, laughing lightly, sitting across from retired U.S. Olympic soccer champion Julia Foudy at a conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Tuesday (video here). “It’s a question I’ve been asked, and I’d love to sit here today and say yes, in three-so years that is where I want to be. But it’s hard. It’s hard to look that far, also being a woman that’s also [turning] 30 years [old in three weeks]. I want to have a family. I want to be a mother. Those are definitely long-term goals of mine. But of course to compete in another Olympics, that’s an athlete’s dream. I’d love to be a part of that.”

Sharapova is set to return from her 15-month meldonium ban next month. What stings the most about her suspension?

“Something was taken away from you that you’ve done so passionately since you were a little girl,” she said. “Although I’m at a stage and an age in my career and in my life where you’re closer to the end than you are to the beginning, you always want to end your career or a chapter in your life on your terms and in your voice. And to be in a moment where you feel or you felt like it could have ended on someone else’s voice and someone else’s terms was very difficult to accept. That’s why I fought so hard for the truth to be out. You don’t realize how much you love something and how much something it means to you until you lose it for some time. It gave me a chance also to live.”

Sharapova joked about going to Coachella last year.

“There’s 120,000 people doing drugs that I’m not aware of?” she said, laughing. “And completely being out of my element. I was like, OK? … I’m skipping Coachella this year, because I got my day-job back.”

The fans’ reaction when she gets back on the competition courts?

“I don’t know if there’s much that I can control,” she said.

Earlier this month, her agent reportedly said he thought that Sharapova will play through the 2020 Tokyo Games if healthy.

Sharapova will be 33 years old come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, two years older than any previous Russian Olympic tennis player. She will likely have to be ranked among the top four Russians in the world in spring 2020 to qualify for the Games outright.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said Tuesday. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility.

One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

Two women’s players, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams, have achieved the singles career Golden Slam — winning all four majors and the Olympics. Sharapova, beaten by Williams 6-0, 6-1 in the London 2012 final, is a Tokyo title away from joining them.

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