Brittany Bowe starts abbreviated international season, hungry to return as queen of 1000m

ISU World Cup Speed Skating Final - Heerenveen
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Inspired by “The Queen’s Gambit,” speed skater Brittany Bowe wants to learn to play chess.

She’ll have plenty of time to take up a new sport while ensconced in the month-long “bubble” surrounding two World Cups and the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in Heerenveen, Netherlands.

Bowe asked Matt Kooreman, a US Speedskating coach and chess aficionado, to bring a chessboard on the trip.

“It’s a huge mental game and I love that aspect of it,” Bowe said. “He said, ‘You better be careful, though, or you’re going to become obsessed with it.’ He knows where my mind is at.”

Well, actually, she’s more obsessed with recapturing her position as the Queen of the 1000m.

Spanning the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Bowe won seven straight races – a record for a U.S. woman – and set the world record of 1 minute, 11.61 seconds before finishing fifth in a World Cup in Calgary, Alberta.

She then had a horrendous outing at the 2020 World Championships on home ice in Kearns, Utah, outside Salt Lake City, which magnified her disappointment. Not only did Bowe fail to make the podium for the first time in any event since 2012, she placed eighth in the 1000m and wasn’t even the top American.

Bowe rebounded with third place in a 1000m race at the World Sprint Championships, finishing sixth in the overall standings, and a silver in the 1000m at the final World Cup in Heerenveen.

“It was a great year overshadowed by great disappointments those two weekends, in particular the one weekend with the world championships,” Bowe said, “so it definitely relit my fire. I’m more determined than ever.”

When Bowe opens her 2021 season in the first World Cup on Friday at the Thialf venue, it will be her first international competition in nearly a year. The second World Cup will be Jan. 29-31, then athletes will remain in Heerenveen for the World Championships Feb. 11-14.

“I’ve been itching to race all season,” said Bowe, who will turn 33 on Feb. 24. “Without having the excitement of racing, training can become pretty monotonous, and tough at times – not to sugarcoat it – so to get word of the hub happening, it’s really, really exciting. I’m super grateful to have the opportunity to race this season.

“My physical fitness feels awesome. I feel mentally and physically strong and I feel confident.”

The national championships, scheduled for December, were cancelled due to the pandemic, so Bowe was one of the athletes who qualified for the trip based on their season’s best times.

Rising star Kimi Goetz, one of her top rivals, decided not to travel due to concerns about the coronavirus, but Bowe said she had no hesitation.

“The beauty of being part of US Speedskating is we get to choose what’s best for us,” said Bowe, who has 26 World Cup victories and nine medals at the single distance world championships. “There are six of us that have accepted our role on the team. For those that haven’t, I totally respect their decision and what’s best for them, and obviously they will be missed on the road.”

Bowe said that in the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, it was important for her to feel the nerves and anxiety that come with international competition.

“Obviously I want to do well and be competitive and win when I go over to Europe,” she said, “but just working through those emotions are just as valuable as a medal at this point going into an Olympic year.”

But Bowe knows her 11th World Cup season will be very different in more ways than just the abbreviated schedule. For starters, there will be no spectators in the Thialf arena.

“Normally it’s the best atmosphere in the entire world to skate in, the speed skating mecca of the world,” said Bowe.

Athletes will be restricted to their hotels and must ask for permission to go out for a walk, run or bike ride. They will also undergo regular testing.

“There will be some form of isolation,” Bowe said, “but we know what we signed up for.”

She said she has tried not to dwell on what happened a year ago.

During “an unbelievable season,” Bowe broke the U.S. women’s record for consecutive victories that she shared with Bonnie Blair and Heather Bergsma. She averaged better than a half-second margin of victory during the streak while setting track records in six of her seven wins. An eighth straight win would have tied German speed skater Anni Friesinger-Postma’s all-time mark from the 2007-08 season.

“And kind of the world comes crashing down there in January and February,” said Bowe. “Each year our goal is to be a world champion, and for one reason or another, it didn’t work out for me. The stars were not aligned for me.”

At the time, she called the experience “a nightmare.”

Following her “bittersweet” silver medal to cap the season, Bowe went home to Florida for a couple of months to isolate during the pandemic with her mother and sister. For exercise, Bowe relied on inline skating, where she got her competitive start before switching to ice.

“I could not be more grateful for the time that we got together, all the TikToks we made, and just getting to have fun with each other,” Bowe said.

Upon her return to Utah, she was determined to “push the distance side of things.” Bowe had started last season with a podium finish in the 1500m and won two bronze medals in the event, but was dissatisfied with her performance.

“I just wasn’t feeling strong in that race,” Bowe said, “so this summer and fall and into the winter, I’m really, really focused on getting back to that competitive edge in the 1500m.”

During the time trials held in Utah this season, Bowe posted her two fastest 1500m times outside of World Cups, clocking 1:52.25 on Jan. 2 and 1:52.79 in November.

“With no atmosphere and subpar ice conditions, I would say I am thrilled with that,” said Bowe, whose American record is 1:50.32. Her best 1000m time this season is 1:13.66 in October.

Next season she’ll return to concentrating on the speed aspect of her sport in hopes of securing the individual Olympic medal which has eluded her.

“Sochi was probably the biggest disappointment of my sporting career, going in as a medal contender and falling far short,” said Bowe, who placed eighth in the 1000m at the 2014 Games.

A severe concussion disrupted her training for the PyeongChang Olympics where Bowe just missed the podium in the 1000m with a fourth-place result and was fifth in the 1500m.

“That wasn’t a disappointing moment for me, although it was upsetting,” said Bowe, who clinched the team pursuit bronze medal with Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens. “Going into PyeongChang was a much different situation coming off my head injury and a year of rehabilitation, so I was just grateful to be able to compete in the Olympics at that point.”

She’s not sure if she’ll retire after the Beijing Games, but will go through an evaluation process.

“I’ll be 33, going on 34 at the Olympics, so I am getting up there in age – and that’s something to consider,” Bowe said. “The world is definitely not slowing down. There’s always someone bigger, faster, stronger coming up under you. That’s just the natural progression of everything in life.

“But if things do go well there, on one hand you could say it was a great career and end it there. On the other hand, as an athlete you’re always hungry for more and you kind of thrive off that victorious feeling. Is it easy to stop once you’re winning? I would say, ‘Absolutely not.’”

How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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