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.”

Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

MORE: Australian swim star issues plea after hometown hit by fires

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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MORE: Shiffrin among 10 dominant Winter Olympians of 2010s decade