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US speedskaters have altitude adjustment for PyeongChang

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — U.S. Speedskating needed an altitude adjustment after getting shut out in Sochi.

Maybe the change will help the United States reclaim golden glory this month at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The U.S. team was left off the medal stand in 2014 after training too long at altitude even though those games were held near sea level in Russia.

Fast forward four years and the Americans have adjusted their preparation routine to spend more time training at the Pettit National Ice Center, one of the sport’s important venues, ahead of the Pyeongchang Games . Like Pettit, the oval in South Korea is at sea level.

“Having them be here is going to give them a similar (feel) on the ice once they get over to Korea,” said Bonnie Blair Cruikshank, a vice president of the Pettit’s board of directors. She’s also speedskating royalty as a five-time Olympic gold medalist who spent much time training at the big rink on the outskirts of Milwaukee.

“It’s a perfect place for them to train and know what they’re going to be feeling like” in South Korea, Blair Cruikshank said.

The Pettit had been overtaken by the Utah Olympic Oval, which is about 4,600 feet above sea level, as the home for top speedskaters in recent years. The U.S. Olympic trials were held in Utah four years ago ahead of Sochi.

A lack of familiarity with high-tech skins suits was among other factors contributing to the embarrassing outcome for the United States in what had been its most successful Winter Olympics sport. U.S. Speedskating held its pre-Sochi camp at a frigid outdoor rink in the mountains of Italy.

This time, the Americans held their camp indoors at the Pettit, where the Olympic trials also were held for the first time since 1998. Another camp at the Pettit in January 2017 sandwiched a visit typically held each year in September.

“Four years ago when we selected our team in Salt Lake, there was a lot of pushback — the Milwaukee people were upset,” said Guy Thibault, U.S. Speedskating’s high performance director. “Sochi is a slower rink, and people were wondering why we’re picking a team at altitude.”

Logistics played a role, too, Thibault noted, with NBC needing the selections to take place in Utah. The short-track trials immediately followed the long-track trials in 2014, and television coverage is good for publicity for a sport that draws the most attention in Olympic years.

The move to Milwaukee worked out this year.

“It’s better for the sport overall,” Thibault said.

At higher altitudes, “there’s less air slowing you down” because the density is thinner, Thibault said. A skater can glide a little more.

“So you’re cutting through the air a lot faster in Salt Lake, hitting a lot higher speeds, a lot less resistance,” said Brittany Bowe , a 2014 Olympian and medal contender this year . Bowe and fellow American Heather Bergsma have dominated the 1,000 and 1,500 distances internationally.

At sea level, it takes a little more energy to cut through the thicker air.

“Therefore the times are slower,” Bowe said. “You just have to adjust the way that you’re skating a little bit, you have to adjust your mental tactics and capacity and realize you’re not going to be hitting those speeds in Salt Lake.”

Olympian Jonathan Garcia said team members have probably spent about eight weeks in Milwaukee in each of the last two years. He feels good heading into South Korea after reaching personal bests at sea level.

“I just think it’s like training with a weight vest for another sport. It gives you that extra resistance that you wouldn’t have in Salt Lake,” Garcia said. “So it’s not so much as a shock to the body.”

Milwaukee offers added comfort because of its speedskating roots .

The Pettit is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Before the Pettit opened in 1992, the location was home to the outdoor Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink, where five-time gold medalist Eric Heiden trained. Blair Cruikshank and another gold medalist, Dan Jansen, trained at the Pettit ahead of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillihammer, Norway.

The return of the Olympic trials in early January drew sold-out crowds, a sign that it may not take another two decades for the most important speedskating event in the United States to return to Wisconsin.

“For the sport, I’m excited for the Olympic trials and the excitement it created,” Blair Cruikshank said. “Now it’s nice that this is the facility where they were (training) in for their final preparations.”

Erin Jackson goes from Ocala Cannibals to U.S. Olympic team

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WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) — Erin Jackson surprised herself and almost everyone else at the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials, becoming an Olympian after just four months on ice.

Coming from inline skating, Jackson qualified in the 500m by finishing third behind Sochi Olympians Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma.

Bowe had the fastest time over two heats Friday night. She was quicker in her first run around the big oval, clocking 37.95 seconds. Her second run was 38.18.

Bergsma also was quicker in her first heat at 38.24. Her second trip was 38.42.

Jackson was just the opposite.

The 25-year-old from Ocala, Fla. (same hometown as Bowe and another Olympic skater, Joey Mantia), went 39.22 in her first heat. She was even better in her second run, going 39.04.

“I really wasn’t expecting any of this, just coming in as a newbie, just trying to do the best I can,” she said, smiling. “I still don’t even know.”

Jackson becomes the third black athlete to make the U.S. Olympic speed skating team. She joins fellow long-tracker Shani Davis and short-tracker Maame Biney, who is originally from Ghana.

Jackson is a former University of Florida engineering student and roller derby player for the Ocala Cannibals and Jacksonville RollerGirls.

Bowe and Bergsma had already earned spots in PyeongChang by finishing one-two in the 1000m, so doubling up in another event cleared the way for Jackson to join them.

Her previous personal best was 39.51 set Dec. 23 in the high altitude of Salt Lake City.

“A couple weeks ago, I was still in the 40s,” Jackson said. “I think I hadn’t even broken 40 [seconds] yet, so it’s all happened really fast.”

Bowe is a former inline skater from Ocala, and has been a teammate of Jackson’s for several years.

“She’s improving dramatically every time she steps on that ice,” Bowe said. “She’s at a point now where she can make those huge gains, so to see that two races in a row out here when the pressure is the highest is really promising for her and the sprint program for Team USA.”

On the men’s side, Mitch Whitmore added the 500m to his schedule after making his third Olympic team in the 1000m.

He skated fastest in his first heat at 35.06. But Whitmore had slow reactions in both heats.

“I’ve got a lot of room for improvement still,” he said. “It’s more stressful here than at World Cups or other big competitions just because you have to make the team and there’s expectations of being a favorite going into this competition.”

Jonathan Garcia made his second Olympic team by finishing second at 35.22 after missing out in the 1000m earlier in the week.

Kimani Griffin, a former inliner, was third at 35.26 and is expected to make the team depending on other skaters doubling up in events.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials TV Schedule

Shani Davis makes one more Olympic speed skating team (video)

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Shani Davis is going to another Olympics, looking to add to his four speed skating medals.

The 35-year-old finished second in the 1000m at the Olympic Trials in West Allis, Wis., on Wednesday to take one of up to three U.S. spots in the event in PyeongChang next month.

“I never used to worry about these things when I was young. Of course, it was more of an automatic thing,” Davis said. “Today, I was thinking what would happen if I wasn’t going to make the team. … I went out there and fought like it was the last race of my career.”

Sochi Olympian Joey Mantia won the trials 1000m in 1:09.15. Davis was second in 1:09.23, followed by Mitch Whitmore in 1:09.31 to likely round out the Olympic team in the event.

Whitmore’s spot will be safe if some men start making the team in multiple events, which is highly expected, to keep the overall men’s roster size to a maximum of eight.

Heather Bergsma and Brittany Bowe, who both own 1000m world titles, went one-two in the women’s 1000m at trials later Wednesday to make the Olympic team.

Davis earned Olympic 1000m gold in 2006 and 2010 but finished eighth in Sochi as part of a stunning medal-less performance from the U.S. in its historically most successful Winter Games sport.

“It’s not a passing moment that I don’t think about 2014, but there’s nothing I can do about it now,” he said in 2016.

Davis rebounded from Sochi to earn a surprise world 1000m title in 2015, a crown that helped convince him not to retire. He has struggled since, finishing 12th, 12th, 13th and 14th in four World Cup 1000m races this season.

“I’m not a middle-type-of-the-pack skater,” Davis said in 2015, before his bounce-back world title. “If I’m not competitive with the rest of the world, and I’m sixth and seventh and eighth, whatever, then it’s not for me. I can happily move on.”

Davis also owns Olympic 1500m silver medals from 2006 and 2010 and will race that event at trials on Saturday. Again, the top three are in line to make the Olympic team.

He entered trials as the third-fastest U.S. man in both the 1000m and 1500m this season.

“I think I can put myself in the higher rankings worldwide, not just in America,” Davis said. “I still want to be the fastest speed skater in the world.”

Up to 16 skaters could qualify for the Olympic team at trials with the best medal hopes in the 1000m, 1500m and mass start.

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U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Tuesday, Jan. 2 4:15 p.m. Women’s 3000m LIVE STREAM
5:30-7 p.m. Women’s 3000m NBCSN, Streaming
Wednesday, Jan. 3 6-7:30 p.m. 1000m NBCSN, Streaming
Thursday, Jan. 4 6:30-8:30 p.m. Women’s 5000m NBCSN, Streaming
Friday, Jan. 5 4:20 p.m. 500m #1 LIVE STREAM
6:30-8 p.m. 500m #2 NBCSN, Streaming
Saturday, Jan. 6 6-8 p.m. 1500m NBCSN, Streaming
Sunday, Jan. 7 6-6:45 p.m. Mass start NBCSN, Streaming