Birthday bonanza: Yuma Murakami celebrated his 27th in golden style 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Yuma Murakami handed himself a golden birthday present at the ISU Speed Skating World Cup on Friday, winning the 500m in a track record time the day after he turned 27. His compatriot Tatsuya Shinhama came second while world record holder Pavel Kulizhnikov (RUS) returned from injury to claim bronze in his first World Cup appearance this season. Jordan Belchos (CAN) won the men's mass start while Russia clinched the Team Sprint gold.
500m Men: Confidence key for birthday boy
Murakami started in the fifth pair of the 500m and had the fastest opener of the field, hammering out the 100 meters in 9.51 seconds. With an overall time of 34.58 he was 0.02 seconds faster than the 2017 track record set by Tsubasa Hasegawa (JPN), who came second in the B Division in 34.98 on Friday.
Kulizhnikov had set a swift 34.73 in the first pairing, but there were more contenders who could beat Murakami's time in the last five pairings. One after another tried and one after another failed. Russian pair Viktor Mushtakov and Ruslan Murashov, who took gold and silver last week in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, had to settle for fourth and fifth in 34.75 and 34.76 respectively.
Double joy for Japan as Shinhama and Murakami take silver and gold in Men's 500m. There was also a happy return for Russia's Kulizhnikov 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Murakami's team-mate Shinhama eventually got closest, to take silver in 34.67, but he already knew that it was not enough after the first 100 meters. "I had a false start and then I made a mistake in the opener," he said. "Usually my opener is one of my strengths, but today it was a challenge to try and get my skating back to normal after the first unstable 200 meters."
For his part, Murakami was satisfied not only with his first 100m and his medal, but with his progress this season in general. "Last year I targeted my challenges. I wanted to have more stable results this year," he said. "Mentally I improved a lot and that's why I won today. It's not just luck, I was very confident."
Kulizhnikov was less confident, mainly because he is still feeling his way back into action following his lengthy injury problems.
"I tried to be back in Nur-Sultan last week, but decided against it because my leg was swollen after the flight to Kazakhstan," the Russian explained. "I thought it might be worse here, but I decided to give it a go because it felt a little better."
ISU World Cup Speed Skating Standings 500m Men
Roar delight: Canada's Jordan Belchos was delighted to triumph in the Men's Mass Start 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Mass Start Men: Perfect timing versus rookie mistake
The men's Mass Start was a race for the smart and the strong. Winner Jordan Belchos (CAN) managed to pair both qualities, while silver medallist Joey Mantia (USA) had the power, but - on this occasion - lacked the know-how to take advantage.
Belchos attacked with four laps to go and managed to keep the bunch at bay to cross the line solo.
"This morning [in the semi-finals] I did the exact same thing," Belchos explained. "It's something I've been thinking about for a while. How do I get away? I can’t win a sprint. I realized I really have to time it the right way. This morning's race inspired me.
"There were a lot of guys in the [final] race really strong, making the race fast, and I thought: 'That's good for me. Be patient, be patient, be patient'. A couple of times I really wanted to go, but I said: 'No, no, no…this is exactly what you need. Try to urge this race to go like this and make your move at the right time'.
"I wanted to go when everyone was tired, because then everyone is going to debate if they're going to go [chasing] or not."
It proved a winning strategy. But while Belchos' was pitch-perfect, Mantia found himself a little off-key. The double Mass Start world champion crossed the line celebrating, only to belatedly realize that he had not won the race.
"I had no idea he [Belchos] was out there and I put my hand up like an idiot," Mantia said with a wry smile. "I saw him go underneath with four to go, and I was just too involved in what was going on around me. I totally lost track of him.
"If I would have known he was out there, I would probably have tried to get around Bart [Swings, BEL] on the front stretch with one to go, but I had no idea. I wasn't really paying attention. Rookie mistake."
Mantia's second place did have a silver lining, however, taking him to the top of the World Cup ranking, passing the absent Jorrit Bergsma (NED).
Bart Swings (BEL) seized the bronze medal to climb to second place overall.
ISU World Cup Speed Skating Standings Mass Start Men
The Nagano 2019 Men's Team Sprint medallists (left to right): Japan (silver), Russia (gold) and Canada (bronze) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Men's Team Sprint: Kulizhnikov brings it home
Able to call on the previously absent Kulizhnikov as their final skater, Russia won their first Team Sprint gold of the season.
The 25-year-old brought it home after Ruslan Murashov and Artem Arefyev set him up nicely for the third lap. "They asked me to join them. I thought it was going to be difficult, but it actually went quite well," Kulizhnikov said.
The Netherlands, who had won all of the previous three World Cup Team Sprints this season, were not able to challenge with a completely changed squad. Dai Dai Ntab, Hein Otterspeer and Lennart Velema had to settle for fifth place, although the Dutch stay on top of the World Cup ranking.
ISU World Cup Speed Skating Standings Team Sprint Men
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