SOCHI, Russia — The first time she laced on the long blades it was like a turntable needle skittering across a vinyl record.
“It wasn’t very pretty,” Heather Richardson recalls. “Derek Parra, my coach at the time, called me ‘Bambi on ice,’ so you can only imagine that.”
Richardson, who was 18 at the time, wasn’t the first inliner to switch to long-track speedskating and feel like a frightened fawn.
“A lot of us have followed the footsteps of KC Boutiette, Jen Rodriguez, Derek — all of them did it,” says Richardson, who grew up in North Carolina. “We were waiting for inline to make its Olympic debut but we just didn’t see it coming. So we took our opportunity on ice.”
On Tuesday on Adler Arena’s icy dragstrip Richardson and sidekick Brittany Bowe will get their opportunity to join one another on the Olympic podium and put a double punctuation mark to the recent renaissance of American women’s sprinting in the 500 meters, which no US skater has won since Bonnie Blair capped her three-peat in Norway in 1994.
Time was when the Yanks owned the oval in the speed events. They won the women’s 500 five times between 1972 and 1994 with Anne Henning, Sheila Young, and Blair, and missed medaling just three times over three decades. In the 1,000, they collected gold three times between 1992 and 2002, when Chris Witty and Rodriguez went 1-3 in Salt Lake.
The Dutch, Canadians, and Asians have stepped in since but Richardson and Bowe are ready for prime time. They have an excellent chance of picking up four medals, which, taken with a couple from Olympic champion Shani Davis and the men’s pursuit, would run the projected US total to seven, three more than its tally four years ago in Vancouver, where the Yanks came up empty on the women’s side.
The evolved inliners, who live together in Park City, Utah, not far from the Olympic oval in Kearns, aim to change that. They’ve become an entry, 1 and 1A, pushing each other on the ice and inseparable off it.
“We’re relaxed around each other,” says Richardson. “We live with each other and just hang out. We’re just like family. Of course we both want to win but we just go out and skate our own races each time.”
This is the second Games go-round for the 24-year-old Richardson, who’d been on the ice for only three years when she made the 2010 squad. “In Vancouver I was just happy to be there,” she says. “Here, I actually want to put in some solid races, just go out, relax, and do my best, hopefully be on the podium. My goal is to be on the podium in at least one of my three individual events.”
Richardson, who last year became the first US female to win the world sprint crown since Rodriguez in 2005, figures to do better than that. She should be good for bronze in the 500 behind South Korean defending champion Lee Sang Hwa and Russia’s Olga Fatkulina. In the 1,000 Richardson and Bowe are favored to go 1-2, as they have in three of the four World Cup races this season. And Bowe is ranked second to Ireen Wust of the Netherlands in the 1,500.
Bowe, 25, is the newbie, a former point guard for Florida Atlantic’s basketball varsity when she wasn’t wheeling around winning eight world inline titles on the road and track. Since she had a better chance of making it to Olympus with blades on her feet than with a ball in her hands, Bowe figured that she’d better go to Utah ASAP and get herself on the ice.
So she called Jessica Smith, a former inline teammate who was on the US short-track squad. “She said, I’ve got a room opening, you better come. You can be my roommate, it’ll be like old times,’ ” Bowe says. “She was like, you’re not backing out on me.”
So a few months after the 2010 Games, Bowe packed her belongings, moved from Florida to Salt Lake City, and promptly found herself in the middle of a short-track practice scrum. “It was very intimidating,” she remembers. “But there was no doubt in my mind from Day 1 that I would make the 2014 Games.”
Bowe’s breakout came last year at a World Cup meet in Germany, where she won a gold medal in the 1,000. This year she has collected half a dozen medals, including gold and silver at the Utah stop where she set a world record in the 1,000 (1:12.58) and an American mark in the 1,500 (1:52.45). “After my performance in Salt Lake City I was, you know what, I can get on that podium,” Bowe said. “I want a podium at the Sochi Games.”
Back before she and Richardson were born almost all of the US speedskating medalists came from the Midwest, many from within 50 miles of the oval in a corner of the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. Inline skating and the “Wheels-to-Ice” program that began in 2007 changed that. Now, racers from Florida and North Carolina get the same medals that Blair and Eric Heiden did.
“I’ve had the honor of meeting Bonnie and Eric, who are the legends of our sport,” says Bowe. “To say that they’re my friends and my mentors, they’ve taught me a lot. It’s been a really cool experience getting to know them and learning their legacy — as I’ve been building mine.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com