Lee Sang-hwa burst off the line with a flawless start. She built up speed with each stride on the front straightway -- her arms swinging powerfully, her body low to the ice.
Lee Sang-hwa burst off the line with a flawless start. She built up speed with each stride on the front straightway — her arms swinging powerfully, her body low to the ice.
By the time Lee came around the final turn, the gold medal was a formality.
“Right now,” said silver medalist Olga Fatkulina, “she is almost Usain Bolt.”
The South Korean lived up to the hype as the overwhelming favorite in women’s 500-meter speedskating Tuesday, zipping around the big oval with the two fastest runs to win her second straight Olympic gold.
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Lee dominated the World Cup circuit this season, winning every event she entered.
The 24-year-old kept up that form at Adler Arena.
“It’s not easy to repeat that,” said Lee’s Canadian coach, Kevin Crockett. “It was a lot of pressure. She is a real champion.”
Lee led after the opening heat and went even faster the second time, an Olympic-record time of 37.28 seconds to beat the mark of 37.30 set by Catriona Le May Doan at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Lee’s combined time of 1 minute, 14.70 seconds was also an Olympic mark, beating Le May Doan’s record of 1:14.75 at the high-altitude Utah Olympic Oval.
“She responds to the pressure of it,” Crockett said. “Some people will cave and crumble, and some people will step up. Sang-hwa steps up every single time.”
When Lee saw the “1” beside her name on the scoreboard, her head dropped back in obvious relief. She slapped Crockett’s hand and grabbed a South Korean flag, reveling in a triumph that seemed assured the moment she toed the line in Sochi.
“Let’s look at the last Olympic record,” Crockett said. “It was set on extremely fast ice. Altitude and everything. To be able to set an Olympic record at Sea level on ice that was average today, it is extraordinary.”
The only real race was for second and third. The Russian crowd roared when Fatkulina took the host country’s second speedskating medal, finishing in 1:15.06.
Margot Boer claimed bronze with a combined time of 1:15.48, giving the Netherlands its eighth speedskating medal in Sochi. It was the first event they’ve failed to win at Adler, but was still a pleasant surprise for a team that had never been a strong contender in the all-out sprint.
Lee wasn’t so dominant four years ago, edging Germany’s Jenny Wolf by a mere five-hundredths of a second over two runs.
This time, there was never any doubt.
“Her technique is perfect,” said Wolf, who finished sixth on Tuesday.
Lee shied away from all the accolades.
“I don’t like to be considered a phenomenon in my country,” she said through a translator. “I am not a star. I dislike hearing it again and again.”
The American speedskaters would like to hear their names called during a medal ceremony.
It hasn’t happened yet.
Heather Richardson, who came into the Olympics ranked second in the World Cup standings, was fourth after the opening round and figured to put up a better time in her second race, finishing up on the outside lane. She actually went slower, dropping all the way to eighth.
Any hope of challenging the previous U.S. high of eight medals from the 2002 and 1980 Winter Games falls on Shani Davis, who goes into the men’s 1,000 on Wednesday looking to win his third straight gold in that event. If he falters, there’s little chance.
“We’re right where we want to be,” insisted Brittany Bowe of Ocala, Fla., who finished 13th in the 500, her weakest event. “In the coming days, I think you’re going to see more positive things from the U.S.”
The biggest surprise was China’s Zhang Hong, who skated the first heat with the early group, which is made up of lower-rated skaters and rarely produces a medal contender. Considered stronger in the 1,000, she posted a startling time of 37.58 to hold the lead through most of the round.
She couldn’t keep it up on the second run, going 0.41 slower with a more favorable lane and dropping to fourth, a tenth of a second out of a medal.
Richardson finished 27-hundredths off the podium but is still hopeful about her best event on Thursday.
“It’s a good warm-up for the 1,000,” the High Point, N.C., native said. “I just want to go into it as calm as possible, just think of it as another 1,000 to do.”
The other Americans in the 500 were Lauren Cholewinski of Rock Hill, S.C., who was 15th, and Sugar Todd of Milwaukee in 29th.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963