For an athlete who had just missed out on an Olympic medal by 34-hundredths of a second, Joey Mantia was positively beaming.
Mantia, a long-track speedskater representing the United States, came in fourth on Friday night in the men’s 1,000-meter event at the Gangneung Oval. Sitting in third place with one pair left to skate, Mantia watched with a smile on his face as Kjeld Nuis of the Netherlands rattled off a time of 1 minute 7.95 seconds to take the gold medal and bump him from the podium.
“I needed him to really mess up,” Mantia said with a laugh. “I was trying to be optimistic, but at the same time realistic. I totally didn’t see this coming. I thought if I was top 10 coming out of tonight I’d be happy, so fourth is — I’m floating right now.”
For Mantia, who has competed in two events to this point, everything has been building to the mass-start event on Saturday, when he will attempt to win the first gold medal for the United States in long-track speedskating since the 2010 Games in Vancouver. (The women’s team-pursuit group won a bronze medal this week, giving the United States its one and only long-track speedskating medal of these Games and breaking an eight-year general-medal drought.)
Mantia is among the favorites in the race, and Heather Bergsma of the United States is a top contender in the women’s version of the event, meaning the last and best chance for American speedskaters to win a gold here will come in a new Olympic event that, in some ways, does not resemble long-track speedskating at all.
Mass-start speedskating was one of four new events at the 2018 Olympics. It debuted on the World Cup circuit during the 2011-12 season. Other events in long-track speedskating are pure time trials, wherein athletes, in pairs, race the clock and know where they’ve finished only after everyone has finished skating.
Mass start puts up to 28 skaters on the ice at the same time to race 16 laps around the 400-meter oval. Competitors are not restricted to their lanes, as in other long-track events. Skaters therefore have to think about much more than pure speed. They make tactical decisions about whether to stick with the pack or make a breakaway move. They draft one another and try to read their intentions.
Some say it resembles short-track speedskating on a long-track oval. Some say it feels more like a running or cycling race. Mantia said mass start was something casual spectators might enjoy more than the other long-track events, which unfold in stop-and-start increments and often can be anticlimactic.
“I’ve been doing long-track for about six years now, and I love the sport, but it’s a little tough to watch sometimes,” Mantia said in an interview before the Games.
But mass-start races are different, he added. “It’s 16 laps, but it keeps you engaged the whole time. There’s always something going on, and you know as soon as the race finishes, first is gold, second is silver and third is bronze. It’s simple. It’s relatable.”
In the interview, Mantia said he still sometimes struggled with the mental side of long-track speedskating: the feeling of intense solitude on the ice, the inevitable ebb and flow of confidence and self-doubt. He said he had made progress in those areas with the help of sports psychologists.
But mass start, he said, has always been a refuge.
“Once I started doing mass starts, I was like, O.K., that all goes out the window,” Mantia said before the Olympics. “Even if everything else goes completely terrible, and falls short of all expectations, I still race and win in mass start.
“That’s always kind of the ace up my sleeve,’’ he added.
Teammates said Mantia’s background in in-line skating in Florida, before switching to ice, instilled in him the proper instincts to navigate the more hectic and unpredictable mass-start competition.
“Every race in in-lines, or almost every race, is a mass start,” said Mitchell Whitmore, who finished 10th in the 1,000 on Friday. “So it’s just second nature to him, strategy-wise.”
American long-track speedskaters won numerous medals combined at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Games before being shut out at the Olympics four years ago in Sochi, Russia. Outside expectations seemed to have been lowered accordingly before these Games — for everything except the mass start.
Mantia won gold in the mass start at the 2017 world championships here in Gangneung, and Bergsma finished with the bronze. One year later, they were ready to try again.