SOCHI, Russia — About midway through the Winter Olympics, U.S. speedskater Patrick Meek had just finished his workout for the day.
At the time, Meek and his teammates were still competing in Under Armour's Mach 39 race suit, designed for and debuted at these Games. The much-hyped suit had emerged as the prime suspect in a growing controversy over the U.S. team's performance, which had included no long-track medals for the first time since 1984.
Some racers already had covered a flap on the back to try to limit drag. What else could be done on the fly to the suits or for the racers or anything else to turn the tide?
Meek playfully answered the questions with one of his own: "Do you have Finn Halvorsen's email address?"
The debacle in Russia came on the heels of one of the country's most successful World Cup seasons in years with 28 medals.
How did it all go so wrong? The U.S. Olympic Committee already has promised a thorough investigation, though it also had made clear its support for its partnership with Under Armour and extended its contract through the 2022 Games. Halvorsen and coaches said they will wait for a full analysis.
"The mature people in US Speedskating will take the responsibility," said Kip Carpenter, a national team coach who won a 2002 bronze medal in the 500. "Coaches will take responsibility. Athletes should take responsibility. Long-track upper management should take responsibility."
Long-track upper management begins with Halvorsen, 66, the director of US Speedskating's high-performance team. Outside the small world of speedskating, few have much reason to have heard of him.
He and speedskating's governing body now are in an unflattering spotlight, facing questions not only about racing suits but also training programs, including how skaters balance time at altitude and at sea level. Experts in the sport also questioned U.S. skaters' technique at sea level on the Adler Arena ice.
The fiasco comes barely two years after a skate-tampering scandal and other problems involving its short-track program that led to the overhaul of US Speedskating. Short-track, meanwhile, took the federation's only medal — a silver in the men's 5,000 relay.
After Halvorsen initially agreed to a Tribune interview, US Speedskating chief executive Ted Morris said he wanted to answer questions at the same time with Halvorsen.
Afterward, Halvorsen talked more with the Tribune.
"It is really, really bugging me that we have not performed well," he said. "It is very tough."
US Speedskating's Olympic preparation was mapped out four years ago. At about 300 pages, the document was submitted to the USOC for approval. Annual updates and progress reports in the spring followed. The process determines funding by the USOC.
Halvorsen took the lead in crafting the plan, but it's up to US Speedskating's team of coaches, trainers and specialists to implement it. Halvorsen's job includes providing guidance, monitoring athletic progress and analyzing equipment.
Halvorsen first worked with U.S. skaters in the 1970s and became the country's long-track director in 1998. He crafted America's successful program in Salt Lake City that led to eight Olympic medals in 2002. After leaving for a stint with Canada's national team that ended unceremoniously in 2010, Halvorsen returned to US Speedskating.
And then, on to Sochi.
"This is a catastrophe beyond my wildest fears," Paul Marchese, a federation specialist for 10 years before he was let go last year, told the Tribune recently. "I thought things would unravel and fail to a certain degree here, but I never would have predicted it would unravel this badly."
The U.S. plan predicted six medals in Sochi.
Expectations were lower for short track after the retirement of Apolo Ohno, the Americans' most decorated Winter Olympian.
Short -was coming back from the divisive skate-tampering scandal. Mike Plant, US Speedskating's new president who also works for Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves, led a reorganization and hired Morris as chief executive in September.
The picture looked brighter with long track.
Four-time Olympic medalist and Chicago native Shani Davis was a heavyweight contender coming in, as were the world's two top-ranked female skaters, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe. Instead, none of the 17 skaters finished higher than seventh in any event.
After half of the races in Sochi, long-track skaters ditched their new Under Armour race suits that the company had marketed as the fastest ever. A frenzied 48 hours followed, including a US Speedskating memo to skaters of "talking points" supporting Under Armour, according to a copy reviewed by the Tribune. Skaters decided as a group to wear different Under Armour suits worn during World Cup races.
Little changed except the suits. Racers conceded their confidence had been damaged. Privately, they said, skaters were frustrated.
When the results didn't change, the questions did. If it wasn't the suit, was it training at an outdoor track in the Italian Alps for 10 days shortly before coming to Sochi?
"Altitude's not an issue," U.S. national team coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. "We've performed at sea level."
If it wasn't a suit or altitude, was it something else?
"I have been staying up late at night evaluating everything," Halvorsen said this week.
While the U.S. team struggled to find answers, competitors took notice.
Six coaches of foreign teams, including the record-setting Dutch, told the Tribune they saw U.S. skaters take wide, sweeping strokes, a sign of competing in high altitudes.
In Sochi, U.S. skaters "don't seem to get a good feeling in the ice, and they don't seem to be able to skate with a good rhythm," said Canada's Mike Crowe, who has coached with Halvorsen in Canada and the U.S.
Russian coach Konstantin Poltavets was blunter: "If you skate all the time on fast ice, then it's very difficult to change your style to sea-level ice."
Halvorsen has been described by some in speedskating as a "visionary."
Others have said he is stubborn and disrespectful.
He has inventive techniques, such as replacing leather in skating boots with Kevlar and reportedly using a blade polish based on NASA technology.
Halvorsen attended the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences — "something equal to a Ph.D. within high-performance and speedskating," he said — and later taught there.
He focuses on the physiology of skaters and the impact training methods have on their bodies, including skating at high altitudes. He says his approach is based on research that shows living above sea level provides additional endurance when skating at sea level. Everything in a skater's life is monitored, from practice sessions to equipment to diet to massages.
"He basically set the red line for us coaches to follow as far as altitude and training and the point of when to move where," said Canada coach Brad Schouten, who coached with Halvorsen. "He's a good philosopher. He sets up really good plans combined with science."
The plan for Sochi was more quantitative than previous ones and based on statistics such as World Cup results, according to former US Speedskating chief executive Mark Greenwald, who worked with Halvorsen in Calgary before bringing him back to US Speedskating. (Greenwald left in 2013 as part of Plant's overhaul but remains a consultant.) Jack Mortell, an Evanston resident who has been a longtime fixture in the sport, also contributed to the plan.
This season, the U.S. collected 28 World Cup medals — and increase of four from the previous year — a haul Halvorsen said was the biggest ever. Bowe set the world record in the 1,000 meters in November.
However, in the last five years, U.S. skaters also have won a higher percentage of races at high altitude than at sea level, according to race results the Tribune reviewed. And nearly half of all the medals went to Shani Davis – who trains outside of the national program on his own without a coach.
The trend that matters most to the USOC — U.S. athletes winning Olympic medals — has been headed downward.
After winning eight in Salt Lake City's high altitude in 2002, the country won seven medals four years later in Turin, Italy.
The team won just four medals in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010, with only one by a skater who trained at high altitude, Chad Hedrick.
The U.S. had prepared for the 2006 Turin Olympics in Collabo, 275 miles from the site of the Games. This year, after the disappointing showing in Vancouver, they tried to recapture the magic in Italy.
"That's why they prepared (for Sochi) this way," Greenwald said. "They had success. So you try to repeat what works."
"Altitude training for skating is absolutely not the single answer," Halvorsen said. "The trick here is to put those two together in an optimal way."
The Dutch team did just that on its way to setting an Olympic record with a mind-boggling 22 medals. The Netherlands team also trains in the Italian Alps but usually goes three times each year, sometimes for two weeks at a time. Otherwise, it remains in lower altitudes.
Coaches and skaters have begun questioning the wisdom of US Speedskating's leadership. Perhaps the skaters peaked too early. Arguments for additional sea-level training away from Salt Lake City resurfaced from skaters and coaches who train in Milwaukee, where Halvorsen had a camp last fall.
On Wednesday, three-time Olympian Maria Lamb said, "Finn Halvorsen has done a lot of damage the way he has single-handedly perhaps destroyed so many good athletes … due to a lot of his calls and actions."
The next day, Morris contacted the Tribune.
"Everything I read, the negative stuff I read, comes from two people, that's it," he said, thinly veiling his contempt for Lamb and Nancy Swider-Peltz. "And between them they don't have a single medal."
Wheaton's Swider-Peltz — a four-time Olympian who coaches Glenview's Brian Hansen, the highest finisher among long-track skaters in Sochi — was blistering in her critique last week of the national team's program.
Just before the Games ended, Under Armour extended its deal with the federation through 2022. The next day, USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun described the Olympics as "an experience."
Thursday, the best U.S. speedskater since Eric Heiden weighed in.
"It's a wake-up call," multiple Olympic medal winner Shani Davis said. "You can't continue to squeak by getting the results we were getting, then have something like this happen."
The road to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, another sea-level track, begins when the cauldron in Sochi is extinguished.
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