Speedsters set breathless Beijing pace

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The Beijing debut of the World Cup Speed Skating series proved a smash hit last week, with international stars savoring the return to the Olympic oval and Team China enjoying a medal-laden campaign on home ice.

Gao Tingyu of China competes in the men's 500m race during the Beijing leg of the World Cup Speed Skating series on Saturday. Olympic champion Gao finished fourth, with Wataru Morishige of Japan topping the podium. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

Cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd, Chinese speed skaters took the World Cup's Beijing leg by storm with a string of podium finishes against world-class opponents across individual and team events to cement Team China's confidence entering the new Olympic cycle.

Leading the host's charge were women's middle-distance duo Han Mei and Li Qishi, who claimed silver and bronze medals respectively in the 1,500m on Friday behind two-time Olympic champion Miho Takagi. The Japanese star won four medals, including 1,000m gold, on the same track at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Han said the electric atmosphere inside the National Speed Skating Oval was a big boost and an improvement on the Winter Olympics when pandemic controls meant fans were absent from the stands.

"I am so glad to be back at the Olympic oval, as were a lot of the international skaters," Han said after clocking 1 minute and 55.92 seconds to finish 0.4 sec behind Takagi.

"The spectators made really a big difference and they gave us a lot of energy. The atmosphere was even better than at the Olympics to be honest."

Han's unexpected silver medal at the second leg of the six-stop World Cup season proved that her overseas training program with Takagi's team under Japan head coach Johan de Wit is working well.

"I'm a little bit surprised to skate this fast today. I've worked really hard with coach (De Wit) over the summer. He has always encouraged me and told me that I'm able to do this. It's an honor and a really great learning experience skating alongside Takagi in training," said Han, who finished seventh in Saturday's 1,000m final.

"I think from now on, I won't set any limits in terms of goals for myself. I will also try my best to make the podium at the next Winter Olympics."

Despite suffering from a fever on Friday, Li skated superbly to finish third, in 1:57.01, and collect her seventh career individual World Cup medal.

With Friday's bronze coming after a fourth-place finish at the opening World Cup race in Japan on Nov 11, Li has climbed to second behind Takagi in the overall 1,500m rankings. Defending world champion Antoinette Rijpma-de Jong of the Netherlands dropped to third after finishing seventh on Friday.

The result marked the first time China has reached the podium in the women's 1,500m at the World Cup since Song Li took bronze 24 years ago in the Netherlands.

"We are full of energy. I almost lost count when was the last time that we won a medal in this event. It was definitely an inspirational start for us heading into the new Olympic cycle," Team China's head coach, Li Yan, said of the women's duo's breakthrough.

On the men's side, middle-distance specialist Ning Zhongyan stole the show as his teammate Gao Tingyu, the reigning 500m Olympic champion, returned to the ice. Ning claimed his second 1,500m bronze medal in a row, following his third-place finish at the opening leg in Obihiro, Japan.

Paired with eventual winner and double Olympic champion Kjeld Nuis, Ning kept up with the pace of the Dutch star to clock 1:45.51, just 0.71 sec slower than Nuis' winning mark. Dutch long-distance star Patrick Roest, winner of the 5,000m on Saturday, took silver in 1:45.36.

"I am quite pleased with winning back-to-back medals, but my goal is to go for a better result at the world championships this season," said Ning, who, together with younger teammates Du Haonan and Liu Bin, claimed silver in Saturday's team sprint behind the United States.

Olympic champ Gao drew the loudest cheer from the crowd when he was introduced ahead of his first international race in 21 months. He finished fourth in the 500m Group A final on Saturday after qualifying by topping the Group B final on Friday.

Although not going as fast as he'd hoped, Gao took pride in his performance after taking a long break from racing following his Beijing 2022 heroics due to a lower back injury.

"Not as fast as I'd planned but it was a good skate when you consider that I am still not 100 percent after just coming back from a long layoff," said Gao, who clocked 34.94 to finish fourth, 0.62 seconds slower than his own track and Olympic record achieved at Beijing 2022.

"I'd rather take it slowly and gradually, not making a big noise until I let everyone know my name again at the 2026 Games, just like I did leading up to Beijing 2022," he said.

With Beijing's Olympic oval — also known as the "Ice Ribbon" due to its sleek design — hosting international races again, foreign skaters heaped praise on the venue's Olympic-standard facilities.

"It's so good to be back," said Takagi, who won three silver and one gold medal at Beijing 2022.

Reigning women's 500m Olympic champion Erin Jackson was also delighted to return to the venue where she shone at Beijing 2022.

"Yeah, I feel great. There is a little bit of excitement just walking back here again," said the American sprinter, who became the first black woman to win a speed skating Olympic gold in 500m in Beijing.

"You can't help but feel kind of special after the Olympics that I had here. I think it gave me a little extra boost."

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