Jing Yu (CHN) and Michel Mulder (NED) are in the lead in the Essent ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in Nagano. Just three weeks before the Olympic Games in Sochi, it is the smallest field of participants in a World Sprint Championships since 1976, and many skaters are using the event as preparation for the Olympics. Following behind the women’s and men’s leaders are Margot Boer (NED) and Shani Davis (USA) in second place, and Hong Zhang (CHN) and William Dutton (CAN) in third. Mulder has a large lead, but in the ladies field the top skaters are bunched close together.
In the ladies’ field 24 skaters started. There was no Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR), no Beixing Wang (CHN) and no Jenny Wolf (GER), all former world sprint champions who will be contesting the medals at this year’s Olympics. But fellow former champions Heather Richardson (USA), Jing Yu and Christine Nesbitt (CAN) were taking part.
Nesbitt needed to know where she stood internationally after a disappointing start to the season, but she lost easily in the opening 500 metres race to Laurine van Riessen (NED), who finished in 38.29sec. After them came Yu and Thijsje Oenema (NED). Yu opened in 10.47, in spite of some small mistakes, followed by a 27.2sec lap, leading to a 37.67 total, the second best time ever skated in the ‘M-Wave’, the arena built for the 1998 Olympics.
Oenema began tentatively (she later explained her right groin was injured) and could only manage 38.46. Defending champion Richardson, in the next pair, finished in 38.04 while Zhang finished in 38.11 after a strong final lap of 27.2. The last pair featured Boer and home favourite Nao Kodaira in a tight race won by Boer in 38.00, for second place; Kodaira, with 38.06, was fourth.
In the 1,000 metres Oenema held the lead with 1:16.45 when Yu skated, opening with 18.10 followed by a 27.6 last lap. She eventually finished in 1:15.61 with a 29.9 final lap. Boer skated next and was strong, opening in 18.10 followed by a 27.6 lap, both identical times to Yu, but Boer had a stronger finish of 29.5 to record 1:15.31, thus taking the lead, temporarily, over this distance.
Richardson and Van Riessen then raced, and although they started below 18 seconds their laps they were not as strong as Boer or Yu. Richardson finished in a slightly disappointing 1:15.86, while Van Riessen with 1:16.98 fell behind Oenema. In the final pairing Zhang opened in 18.13, while Nesbitt was slower and although Nesbitt managed a 27.9 first lap, Zhang completed it in 27.5 and followed up with a 29.4, taking first place over the distance with 1:15.17. Nesbitt finished fifth with 1:16.42.
This meant another second-place finish for Boer and Yu came third. Yu leads with 75.475 points, by a small margin from Boer (75.655, which is 0.18sec behind in the 500m) and Zhang (75.695). Boer, though, has the inner lane on Sunday while Yu, who won the title in 2012, takes the outer. Thus there is every possibility that the long run of a new champion every year will be extended.
Boer said: “I skated a good lap, that is what I wanted, this is my fastest 1,000 except those at altitude. After the 500 I thought, ‘actually 38.0 is not that bad’. I came in to this tournament with more focus on the 1,000, because of which the 500 was a bit wobbly, but it is nice that I am high in the ranking. I have never been near a title and now I am second, so I have to give it my all in the 500 and improve the 1,000 even further.”
Last year Yu was also in the lead after the first day, but by a smaller margin from Richardson who eventually won, but Richardson is fourth in the ranking this time (75.970 points).
With Tae-Bum Mo (KOR), Pekka Koskela (FIN) and Jamie Gregg (CAN) all missing, the only skater among the 26 participants this year to make the podium last year is Michel Mulder, who is defending his title here as the hot favourite. Two other former world champions in the field are 35-year-old Kyou-Hyuk Lee (KOR), who has won four times, and Davis who won in 2009 thanks mainly to his outstanding 1,000m, for which he holds the world record.
In the 500m, after a first good time of 35.32 posted by Roman Krech (KAZ), pair six saw Davis race with Mirko Giacomo Nenzi (ITA). Davis’s 35.58 was decent but he lost his pair to Nenzi who, after a 9.99 opening, completed the lap in a very fast 25.2 for a 35.27 total. Then Daniel Greig (AUS) and Espen Aarnes Hvammen (NOR) raced, opening in 9.7. Greig continued with a 25.4 lap, finishing in 35.19 and taking over the lead while Hvammen finished in 35.41, good for a seventh place finish over the distance.
Then came Lee, who is no longer a title candidate and only managed 35.68, but his pair mate damaged a small spot in the ice at the first turn, upon which the icemakers decided the ice should be repaired. This brought a seven-minute delay, more than just a small hole, and in the next pair Kjeld Nuis (NED), who like Davis is strong over 1,000m, was all ready to race but had to wait without knowing how long it would take. He only managed 35.90 and it also disrupted the preparation of many of the better skaters in the later pairs.
Michel Mulder managed to stay focused, nevertheless, and bettered the fastest time by skating 34.83. His pair mate Dutton was a little in his shadow and his 35.37 put Mulder’s time in perspective. Mulder knew it was good enough for victory once he had seen his brother Ronald miss some strokes in the last inner turn to clock 35.67, and when in the final pair Keiichiro Nagashima (JPN) was not the skater he can be, clocking 35.84.
In the 1,000m the first below 1:10 was Dutton. Opening with 16.5, and with lap times of 25.5 and 27.8 he finished in 1:09.89. That moved him past Krech, who had finished fourth in the 500m but had skated 1:10.60 over the longer distance. Dutton took the overall lead at that stage with 70.315 points.
Ronald Mulder and Greig then raced, the former having to make up the ground he lost in his 500 and finishing in 1:09.93 to put him close behind Krech with 70.635 points. But despite beating his pair mate Greig, who managed 1:10.36, Ronald Mulder did not overtake him in the overall points tally, although Greig, with 70.370, slipped behind Dutton.
Nuis then had the chance, in a race with Lee, to atone for his failure to qualify for the Dutch Olympic team. He opened with 16.6 and his first lap was 25.6. Lee managed to stay close in the first 600 metres but the veteran then had no power left and had a 29.1 last lap. Nuis continued with 27.2 for a 1:09.56 total, the best time at that stage, giving him 70.680 points.
Nenzi failed to keep his 0.2sec advantage over Dutton and with 1:10.45 dropped to 70.495 points. In the next to last pair, Michel Mulder opened in 16.51 skating towards Mitchell Whitmore (USA) in the first lane crossing, his lap taking 25.4. Then he made some mistakes in the penultimate turn, worked to stay on his feet and lost quite a bit of speed, finishing in 1:09.91, but it was enough to keep his lead with 69.785 points, ahead of Dutton. His race was constructed exactly like his brother Ronald’s in terms of laps, although Ronald did not make the same mistakes this time.
In the final pair Davis had one and a half seconds to make up on Mulder and that was a bit much to ask. Both skaters in the last pair have had their work cut out over their favourite distance recently. The world 1,000m champion Denis Kuzin (KAZ) had not yet made the podium this year but he did it here, opening in 17.01 to Davis’s 17.12. The start proved crucial as both then had a 25.6 lap followed by a 26.7 lap, so Kuzin took the distance in 1:09.37, with Davis second in 1:09.44.
Davis moved up to second in the rankings with 70.300 points, Kuzin to fifth with 70.415. Several skaters are ranked close together, but Michel Mulder is leading by such a margin that there is very little chance he can be overtaken.
Mulder said: “I had nothing left; the last 300m had to come from my toes after I lost so much speed when I almost fell in that turn. It is a thin line between not making mistakes and skating fast. It is dangerous to be too careful. Last year I was fifth to start with and then had a good 1,000. It is different now: I need to deal with the pressure of having such a big chance to win the title. I have to race the 500 as if it was the only distance, be sharp.”
Nuis said: “I really wanted to win. I felt pretty hopeless after the 500m. I just go for the 1,000m win tomorrow now.”