Champaign's Jonathan Kuck finished 37th out of 40 skaters at today's 1,500-meter race in Sochi.
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — The closest 1,500-meter race in Olympic speedskating history came down to a final lunge of the skate — then a few more agonizing seconds to figure out who won.
Zbigniew Brodka knocked off all the favorites in the king of races Saturday, capturing Poland’s first gold medal in Olympic speedskating by a mere three-thousandths of a second over Koen Verweij of the Netherlands.
Shani Davis? He wasn’t even close.
Neither was Champaign's Jonathan Kuck, who finished 37th out of 40 skaters.
The 31-year-old Davis, runner-up in the 1,500 at the last two Olympics, faded badly over the final lap. The Chicago native wound up 11th in what could be the final individual event of his brilliant Olympic career.
If this was the end, it was a dismal way to go out.
Davis and the Americans were caught up in a debate over the high-tech suits they had never worn in competition, finally leading the team to hastily switch back to the suits they had worn before at the country’s Olympic trials and on the World Cup circuit.
The change didn’t help. Davis was 11th, nearly a full second off the winner’s time. Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill., was the top-finishing American in seventh — matching the best performance by a U.S. speedskater at these hugely disappointing games.
“We have no medals, man. We have none,” Davis said. “And the way things are looking, we might not get any. It’s sad, because we’ve had a lot of potential, a lot of talent. It’s terrible, a big, big, big disappointment.”
Davis said the debate over the suits drained him mentally before he ever raced. He was essentially done after a poor showing in the 1,000, an event he had won in both Turin and Vancouver.
“I did as much as I could to get myself ready,” Davis said, “but I felt defeated.”
Defending Olympic champion Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands briefly claimed the top spot on the scoreboard before sinking to fifth. Russia’s Denis Yuskov just missed a medal, winding up 0.15 behind Morrison’s time of 1:45.22.
The other Americans also fared poorly. Joey Mantia of Ocala, Fla., finished 22nd.
Verweij skated in the final pair and powered toward the line, trying desperately to knock off Brodka’s time in a race that requires both endurance and a sprinter’s speed.
At first, Brodka and Verweij were shown with the same time, broken down to hundredths of a second. But the scoring system in speedskating can take times to the thousandths if necessary, and that proved to be the difference.
Brodka finished in 1 minute, 45.006 seconds. Verweij settled for silver in 1:45.009.
“I said to myself, `These are the Olympics and I have to push right up to the line,”’ the winner said. “Every thousands of a second will be counted.”
Brodka, who had skated in the 17th of 20 pairs, watched anxiously from the infield as the times were calculated. He thrust his arms in the air when he saw the “1” stay beside his name — the first major victory of his career.
When the “1” beside Verweij’s name switched to a “2,” he appeared to scream an expletive and shook his head in disbelief, his long blond hair flowing behind him as he glided around the track. Even during the flower ceremony, he found it hard to muster a smile, despite giving the Dutch their record-tying 13th medal of these games.
The Netherlands has five more events to blow by the mark set by East Germany’s speedskating team at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Not that it made Verweij feel any better.
“Silver is losing,” he said. “It is in very small things that I could have made the difference. It happened. I cannot get those thousands back.”
On the podium, Brodka exchanged a few words with the silver medalist.
“I told Koen I am sorry, but this is sports,” Brodka said. “There should only be one Olympic champion. Even if I would have lost, there should only be one winner.”
The bronze went to Canada’s Denny Morrison, his second medal in Sochi.
The 29-year-old Brodka is a firefighter and former short track skater who placed 27th in the 1,500 at the Vancouver Games four years ago. Though he had put up solid World Cup results in recent months, he had never won a major international event and there was little to indicate he would break through in Sochi.
Now, he’s got the biggest prize of all.
“When I conquered Shani Davis, I realized that I might step up on the podium,” Brodka said.
Follow Paul Newberry at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963