Eric Heiden

KC Boutiette returns to World Cup speed skating for first time since 2006

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Four-time Olympian KC Boutiette, inspired to come out of retirement by a U.S. Olympic legend, will skate in an international race for the first time since the 2006 Olympics on Saturday.

Boutiette, 44, pioneered the inline invasion to speed skating in the 1990s, making his Olympic debut at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Games, perhaps the greatest Olympics ever and certainly the most memorable in speed skating. His best Olympic finish was fifth.

Boutiette will return to compete this weekend to that same site, made famous by triumphs from Bonnie BlairDan Jansen and Johann Olav Koss 21 years ago.

He is the oldest member of the US Speedskating team at a World Cup competition at the hallowed Viking Ship in Hamar, Norway. He is entered in the 5000m on Saturday and the 1500m and mass start on Sunday.

“I’m not anywhere near what I used to be,” Boutiette, two decades removed from skating with his tongue pierced and bleached blond hair, said in a phone interview. “It’s like I’m starting over. It’s almost like my first year of skating again.”

It began in five-time 1980 Olympic speed skating champion Eric Heiden‘s house in Park City, Utah, in August 2013.

“We were talking about skating and the [Olympic] team and all this stuff and kind of joked around about me skating again,” Boutiette said. “A little bug in my head that he put there. I saw my wife after that, and said well, I might give skating a try.”

A few months later, Boutiette competed at the 2014 U.S. Olympic trials in at the 2002 Olympic oval in Kearns, Utah, just for fun.

“I couldn’t even skate five laps on my own last year,” he said of his physical shape several weeks before trials.

He was pretty distinguishable, the only skater there wearing the 2006 U.S. Olympic speed skating skinsuit.

“I fit in it, believe it or not,” Boutiette said. “Squeezing a sausage into a casing a little bit.”

His times were more ordinary — 13th in the 1500m and 18th in the 500m and 1000m, nowhere near making the Sochi Olympic team.

Boutiette continued, buoyed by the news that a mass start event could be added for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. It’s already on the World Cup program, differentiated from regular races where only two skaters are on the ice at once. Mass start mirrors short track speed skating (but with many more skaters and on the much larger long-track oval) and plays into Boutiette’s experience in marathon skating in the Netherlands.

“The tactics and things like that, that I’m pretty good at,” said Boutiette, whose unretirement made headlines in the Netherlands in the fall. “Speed, endurance, a little bit of everything. It kind of plays into my forte.”

Boutiette earned a spot on the U.S. team for this winter’s World Cups at the U.S. Championships three weeks ago, where the lack of depth gave him a chance.

Only four men entered the longest distances of 5000m and 10,000m. Boutiette finished second in the 5000m and third in the 10,000m, averaging about 30 seconds slower than when he shattered the American records in the events at the 2002 and 1998 Olympics, respectively.

“My back is totally blown out,” Boutiette said. “It’s hard for me to skate five minutes at a time. The 10K [which required 14 minutes, 24.04 seconds] is just brutal.”

Boutiette said he’s trained with four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, the best U.S. speed skater for the last several years.

“He kicked my ass not too long ago,” Boutiette joked. “I thought I’d be able to help him out. I led every other set, then the last set, I couldn’t do it. He put the hammer down. That kid works hard.”

So Boutiette is back in Hamar, some 21 years after his first Olympics. He remembers being in the Viking Ship to catch every memorable moment of those Winter Games — Blair’s two golds, Jansen’s long-awaited victory and the Norwegian Koss bringing the house down with three world records.

“I made sure I was on the ice, actually, when [Koss] was skating the 1500m,” Boutiette said. “Listening to the crowd.”

Boutiette hasn’t committed to trying to make the 2018 Olympic team. As it stands, his last Olympic race was not the way he wanted to end his international career.

Boutiette was looking for his first Olympic medal in Torino in 2006, with the addition of the team pursuit. He was the veteran on a trio of former U.S. inliners, including Chad Hedrick and Charles Leveille.

The U.S. led for most of its quarterfinal matchup with Italy but fell behind with Boutiette setting its pace in the latter stages. When Boutiette shuffled to the back of the U.S. train, he lagged, flailing his arms in a desperate attempt to regain contact with Hedrick and Leveille.

He couldn’t.

In team pursuit, the clock stops when the third skater for a team crosses the finish line after eight laps and 3200m.

If Boutiette had crossed with Hedrick and Leveille, it would have been very close. Instead, Italy won by .47 of a second, eliminating the U.S. one step shy of the medal rounds.

“K.C., as soon as the race was over, was crying, came up to me and said he gave it his all, that the tough thing for him was, he was going to have to live with, was knowing he fell behind with two laps to go,” Hedrick reportedly said in Torino.

Boutiette, then 35, left the 2006 Olympics with a comment reflecting his place in the sport that could be repeated in Hamar this weekend.

“I’m not a young buck anymore,” he said.

Yohan Blake details ‘dreams’ for 2015

No easy answer (or end) to “greatest Olympian” debate

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen
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Photo credits: Getty

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – What makes somebody the greatest Olympian?

That question’s been posed at the last two Olympics.

In 2012, Michael Phelps passed Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina for the most career Olympic medals, finishing with 22.

Phelps had already set the gold standard at the 2008 Olympics (he has 18 golds now, twice as many as anyone else), a stat that’s more important in Europe, where the “medal count” leads with a nation or athlete with the most gold medals, not overall as the way the U.S. sees it. Latynina may have been biased, but she believed Phelps needed to pass her total to become the greatest Olympian of all time.

“Well, if you want to know the greatest of all time, the first thing you look at is how many medals they have won,” she said in Russian a couple months before the London Games.

On Wednesday, Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen broke the record for most career Winter Olympic medals and tied the mark for total golds.

Bjoerndalen, 41 and in his sixth Olympics, teamed with Tora Berger, Tiril Eckhoff and Emil Hegle Svendsen to win the first Olympic mixed biathlon relay.

He turned in a performance befitting the occasion on his leg, the third of four.

Eckhoff handed off to Bjoerndalen even with the Czech Republic. Bjoerndalen opened up a 43.1-second lead on his 7.5km, going five for five on two .22-caliber rifle shooting stations. Bjoerndalen said there was no debate over the plan to have Svendsen on anchor rather than put himself in position to cross the finish line and get the glory photos to accompany his record.

“Emil is the fastest in the sprint,” Bjoerndalen said. “We need him on the last one.”

The soft-spoken man they call the biathlon king now has 13 medals and eight golds with one more shot at a medal in the men’s relay Saturday. Another Norwegian, 1990s cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, has 12 and eight.

Bjoerndalen is now the most decorated Winter Olympian in terms of medals, but is he the greatest Winter Olympian ever?

“For me, it’s Bjorn Daehlie,” Bjoerndalen said.

What is Bjoerndalen’s definition of a great Olympian?

VIDEO: Bjoerndalen belongs among greatest

“For sure it’s about how many medals you take,” he said, before pausing and sighing. “It’s a really difficult question. Olympics, for me, you’re fighting for four years, preparation for these Olympics. It’s a hard job. You need to make a good plan and do really good training. You need to fight every day. You need to be in good shape these two weeks, this four years and the next time. If you’re sick, what can you do? You have no chance to start. You need to be so prepared. You need to take so many choices in your life. If you’re really clever and make the hardest choice, you have a chance to be there.”

Those who doubt Bjoerndalen can point to the fact he’s entered more Winter Olympic events than anybody in history – 26, including one cross-country race.

That would make his medal success rate 50 percent, hardly the best ever.

Canadian hockey player Caroline Ouellette will go for her fourth straight gold medal against the U.S. on Thursday. No Winter Olympian has entered four or more events and won all of them.

Unlike Bjoerndalen, Ouellette has no chance to win multiple medals at a single Olympics, hockey being in a team sport. However, Ouellette is not seen as the greatest women’s hockey player ever and not even in her own country. Hayley Wickenheiser was also on the three previous Canada women’s hockey teams that won gold, plus the 1998 team that won silver (and Canada’s 2000 Olympic softball team that did not win a medal).

Figure skaters Sonja Henie and Dick Button also merit mention for single-event prowess.

This brings to mind Al Oerter, a man some still call the greatest Summer Olympian ever. Oerter also entered four career Olympic events and won them all, four straight discus gold medals from 1956 through 1968, all in Olympic record distances.

Longevity is also a factor.

Bjoerndalen competed in six Olympics over 20 years. He’s in his last Winter Games. It’s possible somebody competing for that long might never have truly been transcendent, but rather always near the top and consistently collecting achievements. (Akin to the “Hall of Very Good” debate in MLB.)

Bjoerndalen does not fit that mold. He won every biathlon event at the 2002 Olympics – four gold medals. He was the most decorated athlete at those Winter Games across all sports.

Eric Heiden remains the standard of single Winter Games accomplishments, sweeping the five speed skating events at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Dutch-like dominance there.

But Heiden did not have longevity. He competed in one other Olympics, when he was 17 in 1976, and finished seventh and 19th in two events. Heiden retired from speed skating shortly after the 1980 Olympics. He took up cycling, almost qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, and later entered, but did not finish, a Tour de France.

Heiden was in Sochi before the Olympics (he watched the Super Bowl with J.R. Celski in an Athletes Village). He did not respond to interview requests before the Games on the subject of Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen possibly winning six medals in Sochi (she failed to do so).

Bjoergen, 33, won her second gold medal Wednesday, giving her nine total medals over her career. She could win one more in Sochi.

That could set her up to chase Bjoerndalen’s mark at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, at which point we could be having this discussion all over again.

J.R. Celski watches Seahawks win Super Bowl with Heiden, Holcomb

J.R. Celski
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SOCHI, Russia — Noted Seahawks fan J.R. Celski shared his dreary-eyed Super Bowl excitement with a pair of Olympic champions.

Celski, a two-time Olympic medalist short track speed skater from Federal Way, Wash., woke up at 3:30 a.m. Monday and watched the Seahawks take a 22-0 lead after two quarters on a stream in the Sochi Olympic Village.

He then took a halftime nap and watched the finishing touches of a 43-8 blowout of the Denver Broncos on a Slingbox provided by 2010 Olympic champion bobsledder Steven Holcomb.

They were joined by US Speedskating team doctor Eric Heiden, the five-time 1980 Olympic champion.

“I’m still kind of recovering right now from it,” Celski said following a weight session and on-ice practice at the Iceberg Skating Palace. “It was not a stressful game at all.

“I wish it was more exciting, but I’m happy with the outcome. It kind of made me question if it was worth getting up that early,” he joked.

A fourth person joined them, a U.S. team staff member and Broncos fan. She was more emotional about it than any of the men, including the soft-spoken Heiden.

“It was interesting watching [Heiden],” Celski said. “He didn’t really react to anything. I think he wanted the ‘Hawks to win.”

Celski said he nearly fell asleep during the second quarter, abstaining from coffee, before resting his eyes and missing the Bruno Mars halftime show.

Altogether, Celski said he got seven hours of sleep.

“He woke up, he got ready, put some makeup on,” teammate and longtime friend Eddy Alvarez said. “He looks good.”

Celski, 23, has been a Seahawks fan since he “was out the womb” and remembered the disappointment in 2006 when they lost Super Bowl XL to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Actually, at that time I was disappointed with my skating, too,” Celski said. “I took a year after that off. I was on a downhill slope. I wasn’t having fun with it. I’ve been watching the rise of the ‘Hawks for the past couple years, seeing things come into motion and players being placed on the team. It’s funny them winning the Super Bowl now. I hope it’s mirrored in my performance [in Sochi].”

Celski plans to march in the Opening Ceremony on Friday and opens competition in the 1500m next Monday.

American short track skater now competes for Italy