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Heather Bergsma wins world title, could be top U.S. medalist in 2018

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After a disappointing Sochi Olympics, speed skater Heather Bergsma could be setting up for a historic rebound in PyeongChang.

The American reinforced her dominance in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue on Saturday, winning by .49 of a second in Gangneung, South Korea.

“I had hoped to [win], but I wasn’t sure what the other skaters were going to do,” Bergsma said. “I try not to hear times [of other skaters] before I went, because I just wanted to focus on myself.”

Japan’s Nao Kodaira, who won the 500m in Gangneung on Friday, took silver behind Bergsma. Dutchwoman Jorien ter Mors earned bronze after relegating Bergsma to silver in the 1000m and 1500m a year ago.

Full world championships results are here. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Bergsma will skate in the 1500m, her favorite race, and the mass start on the last day of worlds on Sunday, likely dueling with the Netherlands’ Ireen Wuest for gold in the former. Wuest, the most decorated woman across all sports in Sochi with five medals, won the 3000m at worlds on Thursday.

Bergsma could very well be the top U.S. medal winner across all sports in PyeongChang. The medal-projection service Gracenote has her winning three medals next year — gold in the 1000m and 1500m and bronze in the 500m. No American in any sport won more than two medals in Sochi. No American has won three medals with two gold at a Winter Olympics since Eric Heiden swept the five speed skating events in Lake Placid in 1980.

Bergsma has been on a tear since finishing seventh, seventh and eighth in her three individual races in Sochi as part of U.S. speed skating’s much-publicized failure for multiple reasons. She went into those Winter Games favored to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002.

“Really motivated, I just want to come back and prove that I can do it,” said Bergsma, a former inline skater from North Carolina who made her Olympic debut in 2010.

She moved to the Netherlands two months after Sochi and married Dutch Olympic 10,000m champion Jorrit Bergsma, who had proposed to her in April 2013 by etching “Will You Marry Me?” into Myrtle Beach sand on a family vacation. Bergsma is still learning the native language. On Saturday, she answered the first few questions in an interview with Netherlands broadcaster NOS in Dutch, then switched to English.

“I can understand it really good, but speaking, especially after a race, all the words just disappear,” Bergsma later said in a phone interview, adding that she takes hourlong Skype lessons five days per week.

In the last three seasons, Bergsma broke the 1000m and 1500m world records and won world titles in the 500m and 1000m. Teammate Brittany Bowe snatched the 1000m mark eight days after Bergsma reset it, but Bowe is out due to effects from a July concussion. Bergsma has not been as strong in the 500m this season and finished eighth in the worlds race Friday.

Bergsma used the 500m this week as “a wake-up to the system.” Training more endurance in recent years, her opening 100-meter times have slowed, and she’s less able to keep up with the sprint specialists.

“In the first 100 meters I’m losing half a second,” she said. “When you have an extra lap there or two in the 1500m, you’re able to relax more and keep the speed better. I feel better in the 1000m, but the 1500m is still one of my favorites.”

Bergsma could skate in five events at the Olympics — 500m, 1000m, 1500m, team pursuit and mass start — but the 500m is droppable given its place on the schedule, one day before the team pursuit begins. If Bergsma cedes the 500m, she would have at least one day off between each event in PyeongChang.

Also Saturday, four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis placed fifth in the men’s 1000m, .72 of a second behind winner Kjeld Nuis, the World Cup leader from the Netherlands. Canadian Vincent De Haitre took silver, followed by another Dutch skater, Kai Verbij.

The Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova won her 11th straight Olympic or world title in the 5000m. Germany’s Claudia Pechstein, a 44-year-old with nine Olympic medals, took silver, 1.55 seconds behind.

Jorrit Bergsma took silver, 5.06 seconds behind Sven Kramer in the 10,000m. Bergsma was one second faster than Kramer through 23 of 25 laps in the grueling, 13-minute race, before fading horribly in the last 800 meters.

MORE: 18 U.S. Olympic hopefuls to watch for PyeongChang

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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