TURIN, Italy - A generation of U.S. speedskaters is stepping aside, leaving a major hole in a sport that has always been a consistent American medal producer at the Winter Olympics.
Who will step up to replace them?
That’s a concern to Chris Witty and Casey FitzRandolph, both heading into probable retirement with seven Winter Games and four medals between them.
“I’m worried a little about U.S. speedskating,” Witty said. “We were fortunate to have a lot of inline talent fall into our laps. But what are we doing to develop other athletes who are not coming through inline?”
FitzRandolph notices fewer skaters showing up for the pack-style meets that have long been the developmental backbone of his sport.
“It’s certainly not where it was when I was young,” the 31-year-old said. “Yeah, we’ve gotten an insurgence of inline skaters. But that sport isn’t growing, either. Maybe right now we’re seeing the best of both worlds coming together.”
The Americans won three golds and seven medals overall at the speedskating oval, a drop of only one from their record-tying output in Salt Lake City four years ago.
The Netherlands (three golds, two silvers, four bronzes) and Canada (two golds, four silvers, two bronzes) were the only countries that finished higher in the medal standings.
Five of the U.S. medals were claimed by former inliners Chad Hedrick, who had one of each color, and Joey Cheek, who won a gold and a silver. Shani Davis got the other two, including a gold that made him the first black athlete to win an individual event at the Winter Olympics.
Coming back in 2010
Hedrick plans to return for the 2010 Vancouver Games, when he’ll be 32. His coach believes the brash Texan is still improving, considering he switched from wheels to ice less than four years ago.
The 23-year-old Davis sounds like he’s coming back, too, which would give the Americans a potent 1-2 punch for the next Olympics even if the duo doesn’t particularly like each other.
“I want to get into some new things,” Hedrick said. “I want to win as many medals at as many different distances as I can.”
Beyond those two, there are plenty of questions.
Women failed to medal
The American women failed to win a medal for the first time since 1984, and there’s no budding star on the horizon to replace longtime stalwarts Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez.
The 30-year-old Witty all but announced her retirement after a poor showing in Turin. Rodriguez, who turns 30 in June, didn’t sound like she would still be around for Vancouver.
“This is so stressful,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do this for four more years.”
Three of the younger American women — Maggie Crowley, Maria Lamb and Ellie Ochowicz — have college in their immediate plans.
Beyond Hedrick and Davis, a changing of the guard looms on the men’s side as well.
Cheek, who donated his $40,000 in bonus money to charity, said he’s getting on with his life. He wants to study economics, help out in some of the world’s poorest areas and maybe even run for political office someday.
FitzRandolph, a gold medalist in Salt Lake City, said he’s “95 percent sure” that his career is over.
“My wife has followed me around enough,” he said. “It’s time to settle down.”