Jing Yu and Michel Mulder strike gold

- Nagano, Japan

Jing Yu (CHN) and Michel Mulder (NED) were crowned the ISU World Sprint Speed Skating champions of 2014. Yu also won the title in 2012 and Mulder in 2013. In second place were Hong Zhang (CHN) and Shani Davis (USA), while in third were Heather Richardson (USA) and Daniel Greig, who became the first Australian skater ever to medal in an international long track speed skating competition.

A total of 24 ladies and 26 men from 13 different countries took part. After 12 different skaters winning the ladies’ title in the past 12 years, finally someone managed to defend the title. But there was not a single track record or personal best time as the ice was not very fast.

Ladies

500 metres

Because the distances on the second day are the same as on the first day, the standings after the first day can be expected to be similar to those after two days if the skaters are consistent. After the first day the leader was Yu, winner of the 500m, followed by Margot Boer (NED) with two second-place finishes. Zhang, winner of the 1,000m, was third, ahead of Richardson.

In the 500 metres Yu increased her lead, as expected, with a time of 37.72sec. She was once again the only skater below 38 seconds. Boer registered her third second place finish with 38.15 but lost a little more ground than on the first day and she had needed to win to remain in contention for the overall title. Again Richardson was close behind her in 38.18 while Zhang, with 38.29, was slightly faster than on the first day.

At this stage Yu led with 113.195 points, Boer had 113.805, Zhang 113.985 and Richardson 114.150. After that came four skaters on 115-plus. The order of the top nine had not changed, but since Zhang had won the first day’s 1,000m and the differences were small, nothing was decided behind Yu, and even Yu still had to avoid mistakes.

1,000 metres

Last year Richardson finished strongly and won the title ahead of Yu, but the difference had been almost two seconds, so big that a just decent 1,000m would have been enough for Yu to win. This year, just like on the first day, Olympic champion Christine Nesbitt (CAN) finished in fifth and remained ninth in the ranking. From fifth to eighth in the ranking only Dutch skaters Thijsje Oenema and Laurine van Riessen switched places, so that Oenema, fourth last year, now dropped to seventh. Yekaterina Aydova (KAZ) finished in eighth, and Nao Kodaira (JPN) fifth.

The remaining four skaters, battling for the three medals, were all ready for one last shuffle of the cards. Richardson was the first to race and she had nothing to lose. With a great effort at regaining confidence coming into the Olympics she brought a very strong 1,000m on to the ice. She impressed with a 27.4sec first lap and a 29.8 second lap to finish in 1:15.28, more than half a second faster than she was the day before, reaching a 151.890 points total.

Yesterday’s winner Zhang was next. She could afford to concede 0.33sec to Richardson to stay ahead of her in the ranking and she opened a little slower, dropping 0.27 in the opening 200m and losing a similar amount after a first lap of 27.6 (still the second fastest in the field). But Zhang made up some time in the final lap, which she covered in 29.5, finishing in 1:15.44, which kept her ahead of Richardson with 151.705 points.

The final pair would show what these times were worth when Boer and Yu raced each other. Yu had a 1.58sec lead on Zhang and a 1.22 lead on Boer, so she just needed to skate a conservative race, whereas Boer knew she had to try to beat Yu hoping that it would be enough, but she also needed to be within 0.36sec of Zhang. Maybe Boer was too focused on her pair mate, because to her disadvantage Yu started slowly, conserving energy for the last lap.

Yu opened like Zhang, Boer took the lead, but both skaters then had a 27.9 lap, after which Boer had lost half of her advantage on Zhang. In the final lap she managed to reach the 1,000m podium, staying marginally ahead of Yu with 1:16.12 versus 1:16.16, but her 30.0 final lap was not what she had needed. Yu won her second world title with 151.275 points, Boer had 151.865 points and dropped in the ranking behind both Zhang and Richardson, who could celebrate silver and bronze.

For Boer it was sour, and a curiosity: finishing on each distance podium, with three second places and a third place, was not enough to take a medal. All three skaters who had won a single distance (Yu won both 500s) finished above her, but all three missed the podium in one or, in Zhang’s case, two of their races.

Jing Yu: “This title is very important to me. It means a lot to me. The last 1,000m I just skated like normal. And I will do my best for the rest of the season.” On why she was not so good at the World Cups earlier this season: “In November I was still in recovery.”

Heather Richardson: “Last year my only focus was the World Sprints, this year my focus is Sochi. I had a heavy load of training before the start so this was a great prep heading to the games. I was really happy to still be able to pull off a good 1,000.”

Margot Boer: “My body did not want to come with me. It had not recovered enough. Three good distances cost a lot of strength. Yesterday was a beautiful day, but we better forget today.”

 

Men

In the men’s field the first day had produced only one skater who really excelled. Michel Mulder had won the 500 metres in 34.83sec ahead of Daniel Greig, who with 35.19 surprisingly won the first medal ever for an Australian skater and Mirko Giacomo Nenzi (ITA) who surprised as well, with 35.27. Other medal contenders had skated so poorly in the 500 that they could forget about winning and could only hope for a place on the podium.

In the first 1,000m on Saturday Mulder had only finished fifth after nearly falling, but he still led with 69.785 points. Denis Kuzin (KAZ) had beaten Olympic champion Shani Davis (USA) to the distance win and both had climbed up past Nenzi, Davis to second overall with 70.300 points and Kuzin to fifth (70.415). Kjeld Nuis (NED) had taken third place, but was only ninth overall. Third in the ranking was William Dutton (CAN) with 70.315 points, not far behind Davis after a fifth and fouth place in the races. Greig had dropped to fourth overall, finishing eighth in the 1,000, and had 70.370 points.

500 metres

Keiichiro Nagashima (JPN) made sure of at least one podium finish by skating 35.28. Michel’s brother Ronald Mulder could not match that time but moved up in the ranking, gaining 106.065 points. Dutton could not deliver another good race and finished in 35.69, just staying ahead of Ronald Mulder with 106.005 points and keeping his third rank. Nenzi was a shadow of himself and was left hoping for better days, but Greig raised interest for skating in Australia once again with a time of 35.17 and coming back to second in the ranking with 105.540 points.

But Michel Mulder, not surprisingly, increased his lead with another win. The way he did it was interesting though. He was paired with Davis, and where Mulder’s main strength lies in the 500, Davis is not such a fast starter but has his strength in the 1,000m. Davis started in the inner lane, Mulder on the outer, potentially leading to a problematic crossing after 200 metres. Mulder knew that if he skated fast he could cross in front of Davis, and Davis did not want to cause any trouble for Mulder and opened conservatively, half a second behind.

Davis had said after the first day: “I want to skate a way better 1,000 than today. Realistically I know I can do well in the 1,000 in the Olympics, not in the 500. If Michel has a magical opener, the way I know he is capable of doing, I just have to let him go.” True gentleman that he is, Davis, coming out of the inner turn side by side with Mulder in the outer, looked carefully where Mulder was, stopped his strides to let Mulder pass in front and consequently finished a quarter of a second slower than the first day, dropping to sixth in the ranking with 106.120 points behind Ronald Mulder and Laurent Dubreuil (CAN) who, after a fourth place, reached 106.110 but had a weaker 1000m potential.

Michel Mulder won the 500 in 35.12 and had 104.905 points and a 1.27 advantage on the 1,000m over Greig, 2.20 over Dutton, 2.32 on his brother Ronald and 2.43 and 2.66 to 1,000m specialists Davis and Kuzin.

1,000m

Former world champion Kyou-Hyuk Lee (CHN) withdrew after failing to recover well enough after each distance and standing only 18th in the ranking in his 15th World Sprint Championships. Olympic champion Davis and world champion Kuzin were paired again, but this time in pair nine out of 12. Davis opened faster than in the race he lost on Saturday, but so did Kuzin. However, that seemed a bit too fast for the coordination of the Kazakh. He made several small mistakes in his 25.4 lap and lost his advantage to Davis, who had a 25.3 lap. Side by side they passed at 600m, then Davis convincingly left Kuzin behind him with a 26.5 final lap and proved again that he is the only skater who can do a 1:08 in Nagano, finishing in 1:08.96, just 0.04 above his own track record. Davis had a total of 140.600 points. Kuzin finished in 1:09.54 and had 141.005 points.

Then Nuis recorded 1:09.99 and reached fifth place overall, behind Kuzin and before Ronald Mulder in the next pair. It was not good enough to make the distance podium again. Greig skated another decent race, 1:10.35, and was fifth in the 1,000m with 140.715, losing a place to Davis but staying ahead of Kuzin.

Michel Mulder skated a convincing last distance, starting in a controlled fashion, not hurrying, and he came through well at all the turns, managing to get a distance bronze in 1:09.96 and taking the overall title with 139.885 points. Dutton dropped from third to seventh with 1:10.78, almost a second slower than the previous day but gaining Australia the overall bronze.

Mulder: “It was a good last 1,000. I was shaking a bit at the start (after Davis’s 1:08). The difference with last year was that this time I was expected to win, which gives a different tension. After the first 500 I thought: ‘Yes, this is it’. But I had to remain cool. You need four good distances and you have to do it on blades that both are still only 1mm. I am happy that I am the second Dutchman to win two World Sprint titles, like Erben Wennemars (who lives in the same city) did before. I am also happy for my Australian team-mate Daniel. He has enormous talent, it was really well done. He trains with us and takes care of the rocker and bending of the skate, which he can do more perfectly that I can do myself.”

Davis: “I did not come to win gold, I am happy I can leave this competition with a good feeling in the 1,000m. I feel the best is yet to come. Stay cool, keep my health good, train hard but mainly smart. I usually skate better the second day. It took me a while to wake up. I had a lot of fuel and rage after losing the first 1,000 with 0.07 and the bad 500m crossover. For the Olympics I don’t want to be considered the favourite. I am favourite in the 1,000, and close to the favourite in the 1,500 but that doesn’t matter. In the Olympics I want to win them both. I’m a greedy American, I want both.”

Greig: “I did surprise myself, yes… I have been going really well in training lately but to have four races in a row is pretty special for me. In the final 1,000 I just knew I had to skate my best no matter what position I was in… You just have to do your best, that is the most you can do to control the outcome.” About training with Michel Mulder: “I learn what it takes to be a world champion. I get to see that in him every day in training. What I offer him in return is my expertise with skating equipment, if he wants his blades perfect then he comes to me.”

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