SOCHI, Russia — When one of the greatest speedskaters of all time has a crisis of confidence, when he's thrown off his game by a series of puzzling decisions and the controversy that follows, this is what happens. He has one of the worst skates of his Olympic life and finishes outside the top 10.
But two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis isn't the only American speedskater to perform well below expectations. Davis finished 11th in the men's 1,500 meters Saturday, a race in which he was expected to be a medal contender. U.S. speedskaters in long and short track have yet to win a medal at these Games.
In long track, where the Under Armour suit has been an issue, the results are especially stunning, given the success the team had during the World Cup season with Davis, reigning world sprint champion Heather Richardson and 1,500-meter world record-holder Brittany Bowe.
On Saturday U.S. speedskaters raced in their old Under Armour suits, used during the World Cup season, rather than the new skin suit designed for the Olympics. The new suit has fallen under heavy scrutiny this week.
The Americans face another test Sunday when the women take center stage for their 1,500 race. The men don't compete again until Feb. 18 in the 10,000. Five medal chances remain. But is it too late for improvement?
Canada coach Bart Schouten led the American team for about a decade through the 2006 Torino Games. He too is puzzled. "I really can't explain what happened there," he said Saturday. "They were incredibly fast in the fall at the World Cups. They were really good at the trials. They were fast at the trials.
"This is not the American spirit that I see, that we were expecting," Schouten said. "They're in the dumps, but I feel like they're not able to pull themselves out like I expect the Americans to do."
Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., who coaches U.S. speedskater Brian Hansen, was against the team going to train at high altitude in Collalbo, Italy, before the Games. The majority of the team is based in the high altitude of Salt Lake City. Sochi is below sea level on slow ice in humidity. Hansen was the top American, finishing seventh in the 1,500; he trains in Milwaukee, the American city that most resembles the conditions in Sochi.
"Collalbo was a big mistake," Swider said. "I'm going to get in trouble for it, but I don't care anymore. I am tired of not being believed. I'm tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience is not good enough. You can teach a person with intuition and experience science, but you can't teach a scientist to be a coach. It is something you learn from the very beginning."
U.S. Speedskating believes that high altitude training leads to better results. Others disagree. "I feel that a reliance on this strategy to maintain the fitness of the athletes, as taking precedence over the need to prepare specifically on lowland ice, was a mistake," said former national team member Eva Rodansky, an outspoken critic of the program.
U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro dismissed such claims, saying the camp wasn't the issue: the team had done the same thing heading in Torino and had great success. (The Americans won seven Olympic medals in speedskating in 2006.) It's not the suit, athletes and coaches said. The real problem: the team did not compete in the new suits until the Olympics. Before Saturday's race, the team switched to the previous suits the athletes wore during the World Cup season. Hansen said that change gave him confidence because he knows he's performed well in it. "The other skin may be the fastest suit in the world, we haven't had the chance to race in it and have the results and know it's the fastest skinsuit in the world," Hansen said.
The skinsuit drama is just the latest in a continuing saga. Heading into this World Cup season, the USA's most successful Winter Olympic sport acted like the nation's most dysfunctional Winter Olympic sport.
The governing body was in disarray for much of the last year due the turmoil on the short track team. Former head coach Jae Su Chun was forced out, after admitting to knowledge of a skate-tampering issue of a competitor.
Now retired and working for NBC, Apolo Anton Ohno has watched the saga unfold like a reality show on ice. "At the end of the day no matter who's right and wrong the only people that really suffer are the athletes," Ohno told USA TODAY Sports before the season. "And unfortunately when it comes down to that, it means less medals for the United States.
"The problems in US Speedskating are nothing new," said Ohno. "US Speedskating has been riddled with problems since I started my career."
After former executive director Mark Greenwald stepped down, U.S. Speedskating hired respected executive Mike Plant as its president and brought Ted Morris on board, a former executive with the U.S. governing bodies for skiing and figure skating. Even the program's biggest critics believe it's headed in the right direction.
Amid the controversy, Morris took responsibility for the team's failings. "We know the athletes have talent and should have success," he told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday. "This is on US Speedskating."
One American coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, blamed the team's preparation strategy, saying the team was hyper-focused on the Under Armour cutting-edge technology program and failed to prepare for the conditions in Sochi. He also citied the issue of training in Salt Lake City on fast ice — rather than trying to replicate the Sochi conditions.
Morris said that issue will be reviewed after the Olympics. "That's something we'll talk about," he said. "That's been deferred post Sochi because there's nothing we can do about that now."
That said, Morris added that the team had success in Vancouver, which also had soft ice.
The Dutch speedskating team has won 13 medals through seven events. Each summer, the Dutch skating team unites for two camps lasting as long as two weeks apiece. One near-constant is that the Dutch train at lower altitudes, not the higher altitudes used by American skaters in Salt Lake City or Collabo, Italy, where the U.S. team spent 10 days prior to the Sochi Games.
Though Dutch Olympians are using suits new to the Olympics, they began using these suits as early as the first event of the World Cup season. The first skater to try out the new suit was Sven Kramer, the world's top skater in longer distances.
"It looked worse because the Dutch are performing so well, that it really rubbed it in our faces," U.S. Speedskating's long track coach Matthew Kooreman said of the suit issue.
For his part, Davis took responsibility for this poor showing. "I'm 8th and the paper says I'm 11th. It doesn't say because of the suit or because of lack of confidence or whatever it just says 8th and 11th. So that's what I have to live with for the rest of my life knowing that I had the potential."