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.”

Ex-No. 2 women’s marathoner of all time retires after doping ban ends

Liliya Shobukhova
AP
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Liliya Shobukhova, who was the second fastest women’s marathoner of all time before her three Chicago Marathon wins were stripped due to a doping suspension, said she has retired and is now a coach, according to Russian news agency TASS.

Shobukhova, 38, returned to race Sept. 12 from a two-year, seven-month ban for abnormal biological passport levels. She finished fifth in a Russian Half Marathon Championship.

Shobukhova’s ban was reduced from three years, two months, after she provided “substantial assistance” to anti-doping officials.

IAAF and Russia track and field officials were banned for life in January for extorting Shobukhova out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to avoid a doping ban ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Shobukhova won the Chicago Marathon three straight times from 2009 to 2011, the first man or woman to accomplish the feat. Her last title in Chicago came in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 20 seconds, making her the second fastest woman over 26.2 miles ever behind Brit Paula Radcliffe, who holds the three fastest times.

Shobukhova’s wins and times since 2009 were annulled when she was banned in 2014.

Shobukhova also won the 2010 London Marathon (that win also stripped) but never finished better than sixth in three Olympic track and field races.

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IIHF president doesn’t expect NHL participation in 2018 Olympics

Sidney Crosby
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — The head of ice hockey’s international body says there is a strong possibility that NHL players won’t be competing at the next Winter Olympics.

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel puts the chances at 60 percent that the NHL will decline to go to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of a lack of money to cover player insurance.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Fasel said the IOC has canceled its contribution to player travel and insurance costs for Pyeongchang, leaving the IIHF facing a $10 million shortfall and “begging” for money around the world.

“It’s always difficult to get (to) the Olympics, the Games,” he said. “And now with some problems on our side, 50-50 is very positive. I would be more 60 percent that they are not coming.”

Negotiations and brinkmanship over finances are common in the lead-up to Olympic hockey tournaments. For the 2014 tournament in Sochi, Russia, the NHL’s participation was assured only in July 2013, seven months before the Games.

The IOC’s refusal to cover player insurance adds an additional dimension for 2018.

The NHL did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but Commissioner Gary Bettman has made it clear costs are a key factor.

“There are real costs to us going, including insurance, including transportation because we’re losing part of our season, we’ve got to get in and out quickly,” Bettman said last month at a meeting of the Associated Press Sports Editors in New York. “The players for the last five Olympics in particular have been accommodated in a certain way as far as it relates to their families. Those are issues that would once again have to be resolved. … I’m not sure that there would be a lot of appetite for us on top of that to have to pay for the privilege. We don’t make money going to then Olympics.”

Bettman said he didn’t expect a decision until after the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September.

While the IOC gives the IIHF around $40 million of revenue each Olympics, Fasel insists that money is earmarked for developing hockey and wants national Olympic committees and hockey federations to plug the gap.

The IOC pulled its extra subsidy because its leaders are “a bit scared that other (sports) federations will come and also ask for some compensation for traveling and insurance,” said Fasel, who is also an IOC member and serves on its rule-making executive board.

“I think my idea is to work closer together with the national Olympic committees, as they have normally to pay transportation and insurance for the athletes when they come to the Games, so I can imagine that some of the NOCs are also ready to spend some money there, so we have to go around and do some begging,” he said.

Fasel said the end of this year is the deadline to reach a deal because of the NHL’s need to draw up a calendar for the Olympic season.

“If you don’t have the best, (the Olympics) will be a different competition for sure,” he said, but warned: “At the end somebody has to pay. That’s the question. On my side I will do everything possible to make it happen.”

Fasel dismissed the suggestion that the World Cup of Hockey could offer some players less incentive to demand to be allowed to play at the Olympics.

“There is nothing like the Olympics,” he said. “I think for an athlete to win the gold medal is so different from winning the Stanley Cup. You can win the Stanley Cup every year.”

In Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022, the Winter Olympics move to Asia and away from the North American and European nations that have historically been the bedrock of hockey.

South Korea, which has built a team mixing import players with locals, plays in the second level of the IIHF’s world championship and hopes not to be a walkover in 2018. China is far less competitive. China will be in the fifth tier for next year and in 2022 could become the first Winter Olympic host not to enter a hockey team — a situation that worries the IIHF, given China’s potential to become a huge market for the sport.

“One thing they do not like is to lose the face, so they cannot do that,” Fasel said. “I hope and I think they will have a Chinese player, Chinese team in Beijing in 2022. We cannot put them on the ice and they will be beaten 15, 20-nothing. We cannot do that.”

Things are looking up for China, with increased government interest and the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League due to open a team there this year, but Fasel said the NHL is key to unlocking potentially vast commercial rewards in China.

“A North American brand in China has a very special taste. We can see that with the NBA,” he said. “I think what we need is to have a Chinese NHL player, like Yao Ming with basketball.”

MORE: 2018 Olympic men’s hockey groups determined