Maria Lamb finishes last, then torches U.S. speedskating leadership
SOCHI, Russia — The poisonous state of U.S. speedskating infected one of its unheralded racers Wednesday when Maria Lamb of River Falls, Wis., finished dead last among 16 women in the 5,000-meter event and then publicly accused her sport's governing body of undermining its athletes.
Lamb, a three-time Olympian and St. Paul native, hoped for a top-10 finish in her only Olympic race. Instead, she finished 38.1 seconds behind gold medalist Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic.
The fireworks started in the media mixed zone when Lamb said she was disappointed and had not been feeling well physically since arriving in Sochi. Asked whether she was sick, Lamb unloaded.
"No, I'm sure you're aware of the skin suit issue," Lamb said about the Americans' controversial racing uniforms.
"Honestly, that's really just the tip of the iceberg. We came here as a team with incredible results, and I know that we're all capable of so much more than the Games have shown.
"And it's tough to watch and be defeated not so much by the fact that they're not capable of more, but by some of the leadership in the organization. It's really heartbreaking to me. It's been really difficult to watch, and it's affected me and my training and my recovery."
Competitively and publicly, it has been a disastrous Olympics for the United States' premier Winter Olympic sport.
U.S. speedskaters have won 67 medals, most of any sport, yet with two days remaining in the Games have been completely shut out in Sochi,. The Dutch, meanwhile, continue to dominate, having won 21 medals already.
American skaters griped about their new, high-tech skin suits designed by Under Armour and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which U.S. Speedskating bought to increase speed. But skaters never tested them in competition before the Olympics, and several griped that the suits instead were slowing them down.
More finger pointing erupted when questions were raised about whether the teams should have trained at sea level instead of altitude.
This was an organization already rocked in recent years by scandal, including allegations of sexual and mental abuse, rampant deficit spending and skate tampering.
Any notion of redemption for U.S. Speedskating in Sochi has turned to ash.
"I think over the last several years most of us have managed to perform incredibly well in spite of a lot of the organization rather than because of it," Lamb said. "That adds up over the years, and unfortunately it came to a head that we could no longer perform well over here.
"This is my third Games, and there is so much more nonsense in general going on. You have to try and tune it out. Not having an organization support you as it should, it becomes a lot worse."
Lamb specifically called out Finn Halvorsen, long track's high-performance managing director.
"(Halvorsen's) done a lot of damage the way he has single-handedly, perhaps, destroyed so many good athletes, at these performance at the Games, due to his calls and actions. It's fairly remarkable, actually."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Speedskating did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Lamb's accusations.
It was a bitter end to Lamb's long journey back to the Olympics.
A migraine headache and viral infection landed her in the emergency room during the Jan. 1 Olympic trials in Salt Lake City. Battling long odds and barely able to breathe Jan. 1 Lamb clinched the eighth and final spot on the U.S. team by dominating the 11-skater 5,000m pursuit.
In November a traumatic taxi crash in November left her with a debilitating back injury days before a critical race in Kazakhstan.
Lamb, 31, has two more World Cup races remaining this season in Europe. She has not ruled out continuing her skating career in an organization she clearly distrusts.
"I've always skated because I love it," she said. "There's a lot of good people in the organization. Unfortunately, I feel like they haven't been able to overcome some of the people at the top, the leadership that's really just systematically not listened to athletes."