Japan's Kodaira wins Olympic 500 over South Korea's Lee
By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Nao Kodaira burst off the line, furiously pumping her arms and legs to build up speed. She shot around the oval in a blur and crossed the finish line, the 500-meter Olympic speedskating gold medal easily in hand.
With two pairs to go, Kodaira could watch knowing that two-time defending champion Lee Sang-hwa was unlikely to catch her despite being propelled by the loud cheers of flag-waving Korean fans on Sunday night.
“I was under big pressure, but I fought through it,” Kodaira said. “I was the captain of the whole delegation of Japan. I know a lot of attention was on me.”
She didn’t flinch.
Kodaira was timed in 36.94 seconds, becoming the first woman to race under 37 seconds at sea level. She high-fived her coach after the last skater crossed the line and shook her fists in triumph.
Her time was an Olympic record, bettering the mark of 37.28 set by Lee four years ago in Sochi.
For the first time in eight speedskating events, the Netherlands failed to make the podium. But the country could take some credit for Kodaira’s victory.
After failing to medal four years ago in Sochi, the Japanese speedskater was prompted to move to the Netherlands and immerse herself in a country where speedskating is a national obsession.
“I went to Holland more than to learn how to skate better technically, but to learn the skating culture,” she said. “That was more important to me.”
Kodaira came into the Olympics as the reigning world champion in the 500 and the dominant sprinter on the World Cup circuit, where she has won 15 straight races dating to 2016.
Kodaira is just the second Japanese speedskater to win Olympic gold, joining Hiroyasu Shimizu, who won the men’s 500 at the 1998 Nagano Games. She also earned silver in the 1,000 and finished sixth in the 1,500.
At 31, Kodaira is the oldest Japanese gold medalist in the Winter Games, breaking the record set by ski jumper Masahiko Harada who was 29 when he won the men’s team event in 1998.
Lee clocked 37.67 to earn silver. Karolina Erbanova of the Czech Republic, who also trained in Holland, took bronze in 37.34.
“Before the race I was half-nervous and half-excited,” said Lee, who was trying to equal American Bonnie Blair’s record of three golds in the 500.
Afterward, Kodaira and Lee glided around carrying their respective flags in a show of unity contrary to the two countries’ rough relationship due to historical disputes.
“Sports can make the world one together,” Kodaira said. “It’s that simple.”
Kodaira put a comforting arm around the shoulder of a crying Lee as the crowd chanted the Korean’s name.
“She said she was still proud of me,” Lee said, “and I said I was proud of her.”
Lee said she cried because she was relieved the race was over.
“I don’t have any regrets,” she said.
The Americans came up empty again.
Brittany Bowe finished fifth in 37.530, and teammate Heather Bergsma was 11th in 38.13.
Erin Jackson, the first black woman to make a U.S. Olympic long-track team, was 24th of 31 skaters in 39.20 after switching from inline skating to ice five months ago.
“I’m really happy with my performance,” Jackson said. “I’m already looking forward to working on things for next season.”
The 500 used to be decided over two races, in which each skater had to start both in the inner lane and the outer lane once. Now it’s one race only since the mass start has returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1932.
In the men’s team pursuit, South Korea, the Netherlands, Norway and New Zealand advanced to the semifinals on Wednesday.
The Koreans led the way in 3 minutes, 39.29 seconds. The Dutch, led by 5,000 champion Sven Kramer, were second in 3:40.03.
The U.S. team of Brian Hansen, Emery Lehman and Joey Mantia finished last among eight teams in 3:42.98. That relegates the Americans to the D final which decides seventh and eighth place.
“We fumbled a little bit in the race and it’s hard to get it back after that,” Mantia said. “If you fall off by half a second, it ends up being three seconds by the end of the race.”
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