Shani Davis

Speed skating World Cup storylines

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The World Cup speed skating season, which begins Friday, is the determinant for the number of Olympic spots each country receives and a barometer for Olympic medal contenders.

Countries will earn Sochi Olympic quota spots at the first four World Cup stops before the Olympics — Calgary, Alberta; Salt Lake City, Utah; Astana, Kazakhstan and Berlin.

For the U.S., those quota spots will then be filled at the Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City.

Here are all of the key events before the Olympics:

Calgary World Cup — Nov. 8-10
Salt Lake City World Cup — Nov. 15-17
Astana World Cup — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Berlin World Cup — Dec. 6-8
Salt Lake City U.S. Olympic Trials — Dec. 27-Jan. 1
Nagano World Sprint Championships — Jan. 18-19

Here are five storylines to watch over the next three months:

1. What will the U.S. Olympic Team look like?

A strong early indicator comes from the U.S. Championships two weeks ago and the resulting World Cup team announcement. However, not every World Cup team member in 2009 made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

Here’s the U.S. World Cup team:

Men
Shani Davis (1000m, 1500m)
Brian Hansen (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Tucker Fredricks (500m)
Joey Mantia (500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Jonathan Garcia (500m)
Mitch Whitmore (500m, 1000m)
Trevor Marsicano (1000m, 1500m)
Jonathan Kuck (1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Emery Lehman (5000m, 10,000m)
Patrick Meek (5000m, 10,000m)

Women
Brittany Bowe (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Heather Richardson (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Lauren Cholewinski (500m)
Sugar Todd (500m, 1000m)
Elli Ochowicz (500m)
Jilleanne Rookard (1000m, 1500m, 300m, 5000m)
Rebekah Bradford (1000m)
Kelly Gunther (1500m)
Theresa Cliff-Ryan (3000m)
Petra Acker (3000m, 5000m)
Anna Ringsred (3000m, 5000m)
Maria Lamb (3000m, 5000m)

The U.S. can earn a maximum of 20 Olympic quota spots (10 men, 10 women) based on World Cup results and times.

2. Healthy Shani Davis seeks Olympic threepeat

Davis, 31, is the only active U.S. skater with an individual Olympic medal. He has four of them, golds in the 1000m at the 2006 and the 2010 Olympics and silver in the 1500m at both Games. He could become the first U.S. man to win three straight Winter Olympic titles in the same event in Sochi.

The veteran Chicagoan pared down his schedule since 2010. He made the 2009-10 World Cup team in every distance and skated all but the 10,000m on the World Cup tour and at the Vancouver Olympics.

He hasn’t skated a 500m, 5000m or 10,000m internationally since January 2012. Davis swept the 1000m and the 1500m at the U.S. Championships two weeks ago.

“My mindset was just to simply qualify and get through Trials the best that I can and get as close as possible to some times I wrote down earlier that I would like to be a little ahead of, a little close to, a little behind, depending on how I skated,” Davis said then. “I’m skating well, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. But the season is still young and the key, the main goal, is to be ready for the Olympics.”

Davis dealt with a small tear in a groin muscle at this time last year that kept him out for most of November. He still went on to take second place in the World Cup season standings in the 1000m, despite missing two of nine races.

He also won silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March, held at the Sochi Olympic arena.

Keep an eye on his World Cup results and if Davis re-adds the 500m and 5000m for the Olympic Trials.

3. U.S. women try to rejoin world’s elite

The drought will be the story at the Olympics. No U.S. woman has won an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002. But it would be a shock if multiple Americans don’t make the podium during the first few World Cups.

2010 Olympian Heather Richardson is the reigning World Sprint champion, and she may no longer be the top U.S. woman.

Brittany Bowe, a college basketball player when Richardson skated at the 2010 Olympics, won bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships.

The U.S. Championships two weeks ago appeared to be the passing of the torch. Bowe beat Richardson in the 500m, 1000m and the 1500m, posting two personal bests.

“It’s a very rewarding feeling to say the least,” Bowe said. “It’s just one competition, and I have a feeling that we’ll go back and forth this year and hopefully we’ll both be in contention for a medal when Sochi rolls around.”

Keep an eye on how Bowe and Richardson stack up against international stars Lee Sang-hwa (500m), Christine Nesbitt (1000m) and Ireen Wust (1500m) at the early World Cups.

4. Sven Kramer’s countryman competition

For every Vonncouver Olympics mention in 2010, there was just as much Svencouver talk. The zealous Dutch speed skating fans hoped he would win three gold medals. He won the 5000m, was infamously disqualified from the 10,000m and was upset by the U.S. in the team pursuit semifinals.

Kramer, 27, sat out one season and went back to dominating his sport. He became the first man to win six World Allround Championships and added single distance titles in the 5000m in 2012 and 2013.

He is not invincible, however. Not even in his own country. Jorrit Bergsma beat Kramer by two seconds in the grueling 10,000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March.

Kramer did not enter either 10,000m race in last year’s World Cup. He also came back to beat Bergsma by more than five seconds at the Dutch Championships two weeks ago. So, don’t doubt him.

Bergsma’s win was more of a testament to fresh depth on the Dutch men’s squad. The other two individual men’s medalists in Vancouver, Mark Tuitert and Bob de Jong, are now 33 and 36 years old.

Bergsma, Jan SmeekensKjeld Nuis and Michel and Ronald Mulder, all in their 20s, could win medals in Sochi.

5. A mixture of elite women to watch

Start with Ireen Wust, who won five medals in six events, including three gold medals, at the World Single Distance Championships at the Sochi Olympic arena. The Dutchwoman has also won the last three World Allround Championships.

She missed several World Cup races last season but dominated when she did race, winning five of nine and finishing second in two others.

There’s also Christine Nesbitt, the only Canadian women’s speed skating medalist from 2010 still competing. She’s the reigning Olympic champion in the 1000m, which will be the meet-up distance between the American women and Wust, too.

Nesbitt was diagnosed with Celiac disease earlier this year and switched to a gluten-free diet.

In the longer distances, Wust will contend with the woman who came out of the Vancouver Games as the best all-around skater — Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic. Sablikova hasn’t lost a World Cup or World Championship 5000m since February 2011.

Video: Sochi chief addresses Olympic concerns on TODAY

Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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