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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2014-02-18

Dispatches from Sochi: Long Track Speed Skating
USA TODAY's Robert Hanashiro reports from the Winter Olympics.

By Robert Hanashiro, SportsShooter.com

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Monique Angermueller of Germany slides across the ice during the speed skating ladies' 1000m in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Adler Arena Skating Center.
It’s the biggest sports event of the year. But most of the actual sports at the Winter Olympics are off most people’s radar until just before the opening ceremony.

Save for the "glamour" sports - women’s figure skating, the downhill and the gold medal ice hockey games, we (most Americans) are amused and bemused with most of the sports being broadcast out of Sochi, Russia. For every ski cross, skeleton and short track there are the really obscure.

Which I have had the pleasure of covering.

I admire the work of photographers in the "mountain colleagues," giving readers the gorgeous vistas and backdrops along with the action and intensity of the competition. And the twirling, leaping and falling that make up figure skating shot by my colleagues in the "coastal cluster" are beautiful images, capturing the spectacle, color and drama.

And then there’s long track speed skating.

So far I have covered 12 days of speed skating in the cavernous Adler Arena Skating Center. I hear the starter's monotone "Goooo toooo the start…" in my dreams now.

But this is a sport that can be both easy to shoot … and challenging.

Unlike its roller derby-esque brother short track, long track speed skating is pair after pair after pair after pair of skaters circling an oval that spans probably a couple of football fields. The clip-clop of the skates during the races is the rhythmic cadence that mark the athletes groove.

You really have to remind yourself to not always shoot the same thing over and over. Challenging because movement is limited, TV has the best shooting spots (like head-on at the finish line) and self-motivation.

My first day heading over to the Adler Arena, a Winter Olympic newbie colleague asked what I was covering. I replied "speed skating."

The young photographer said, "That’s so cool! That’s the one where they crash all of the time."

After setting him straight, I thought about it. Since I started covering Olympic Speed Skating in Lillehammer, Norway in 1992, I think I’ve seen three crashes total. The highlight for me has been watching the domination of the Dutch during the competition. In the first three days of competition, the Netherlands had won 7 out of 9 medals, including two sweeps. They had their third medals sweep (actually the top 4 skaters) the other day in the ladies 1500m.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Yekaterina Lobysheva (RUS) ties her skates in the ladies speed skating 500m at Adler Arena Skating Center during Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
The disappointment obviously has been the dismal showing by the American skaters. While doing research before leaving for Sochi, several publications proclaimed this to be "the best" U.S. speed skating team ever. So far the U.S. highest finish has been 9th.

Speed skating is sort of the auto racing of Winter Olympic sports and to break up the potential monotony of lap after lap of skaters (often 20 or more in a session) you pull out everything from the photographer's bag of tricks.

Pans and blurs are the natural … just make sure that digital camera sensor is clean if you’re shooting f/8 or smaller!

What I like to do is shoot tight and shoot details. Faces, blades, hands and the little lane markers are great targets.

There are several photo positions around the oval and I’ve been moving along one of the turns. For the 1500 meters, the start was in a great place for photos, the athletes in their distinctive crouches just few feet away.

As with track and swimming, staying off the motordrive button until the starter’s gun sounds is very important. Something that I was painfully reminded of during the ladies 1500m the other day. I got to the arena early to insure that I had a spot as close to the start line as possible. The pool organizations had the best spots pre-assigned.

Before each race, photographers that hadn’t gotten to the arena a couple of hours ahead of time, would simply wander over from their not-so-good spots and shoot over the shoulders of the photographers at the start line.

Before each race, a couple of photo marshals would remind the photographers several times that we had to be silent until the gun. About midway through the session, as a pair of skaters lined up, a photographer pointed his 70-200 zoom literally next to me left ear at a skater from China.

Sure enough, after the starter said, "Get readdddy…" the photographer let off a continuous machine gun volley of frames, then turned around and walked away- but not before a false start had been called.

As he walked away, he was confronted by the two photo marshals and just continued to stroll away unconcerned- with his photos, the damage already done.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Lotte van Beek celebrates after her skate to clinch the bronze medal in the Speed Skating Ladies' 1500m during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Adler Arena Skating Center.
Crashes in long track, as I mentioned, are pretty rare. Especially compared to short track where pushing and shoving around turns is commonplace and there seems to be a spectacular crash every other race.

For the ladies 1000m I decided to move my shooting spot into the turn, so I could be closer to the jube at the finish line. What I got instead was a crash that literally hit home: Monique Angermueller of Germany tripping, stumbling and sliding across the ice and colliding with the padded wall right in front of me.

This was literally one of those slow motion incidents; in my mind I could see each individual frame clearly and distinctly, even with a camera that was cranking 11 fps. I was able to track the entire moment, zooming with the Nikkor 200-400 zoom as she got closer and closer. During the spill she seemed to look right up at me and let out a scream- her Olympic hopes gone in a couple of seconds. Athletes work their whole lives to get to the Olympics and you don’t like to see things like this happen.

As photographers we strive … heck we love … to capture moments like this. But I couldn’t help but feel very sad as she turned over onto her knees, obviously dazed. But before I could even bring up a camera around my neck with a short lens, she was on her feet and skating off.

As she approached the finish line a minute later, she received a huge round of applause… including a photographer from Los Angeles.

Courage and honor aren't how you handle victory, but how you handle adversity. (Who said that?) Angermueller was classy, as were the 9,000 people in Adler Arena that night.


(Robert Hanashiro is covering his 13th Olympic Games for USA TODAY. You can follow his (mis)adventures in Sochi, Russia via Instagram: instagram.com/kahunabert and on Twitter: @SptShtr_Bert)

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