Column: Cheer for Pechstein? Root Against Her? Tough to Say
As Claudia Pechstein churned through those last couple of laps, any hopes of an Olympic gold medal snatched away by legs that grew heavier by the stride, it was easy to feel a bit torn.
Was it a victory for clean sport?
But one couldn't help but feel a bit of empathy and a whole lot of admiration for the 46-year-old-to-be, more than a decade older than anyone else on the ice Friday at the Gangneung Oval, skating 12 1/2 laps in the Winter Olympics against a bunch of rivals young enough to be her daughters.
On this night, Pechstein looked every bit her age — and then some.
But at least she gave it a shot.
"Why not?" Pechstein said when it was over, her burning desire to capture a sixth Olympic gold medal — and this one truly would've been historic — hovering just out of reach. "I can still beat younger girls than me. Why is my time running out? You never know. Nobody ever tried at my age to be as fast on the ice as me."
Indeed, with her next birthday less than a week away, Pechstein came into the 5,000 meters as one of the favorites , having won a World Cup race against top competition back in November.
And it's doubtful anyone had more motivation.
Pechstein considers herself a victim in the war against doping, serving a two-year suspension — even though she never tested positive — that forced her to sit out the 2010 Vancouver Games.
She still seethes about the penalty, which was based on abnormal blood levels rather than hard evidence she cheated.
It's a big reason she continues to lace up the clapskates, long after her contemporaries called it a career. It's a big reason she can't let go of the idea of giving it another shot in 2022.
"Maybe," Pechstein said, breaking into a smile. "It's another chance to get a medal in the 5K."
Born in 1972 in East Berlin, the symbolic battleground in the Cold War, Pechstein was long viewed with suspicion because of her roots in East Germany's disgraced sports powerhouse.
Less than two years after Germany reunited, she won the first of what would grow to nine Olympic medals, five of them gold. The first of three straight victories in the 5,000 — speedskating's longest event for women — came at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
But she just can't get past the one she was denied in Vancouver.
Pechstein wants payback.
She continues to fight her doping suspension in the courts, intent on clearing her name, but ultimate vindication can only come on the ice. Father Time? He's just another obstacle she intends to beat.
"I don't think about my age," Pechstein insisted.
Of course, that's not entirely true.
She certainly thought about it when 22-year-old Esmee Visser, skating in the pair right before Pechstein's, went more than 6 seconds faster than she's ever gone before, putting up a time that no one would beat.
"Memories of when I was young," Pechstein said wistfully.
The German got off to a quick start, slightly under Visser's early lap times, but it didn't last. Pechstein's glide got more and more labored, the blue line superimposed on the video board to show Visser's pace pulling farther and farther away.
"Until six or seven laps, it was OK. Then, I don't know why," Pechstein said. "Normally in training, I have no problems. I can go 10 or 15 laps in really good lap times."
Approaching the finish, Pechstein put her hands on her knees, stared down at the ice and glided across the line. She did another loop and a half around the oval in the warmup lane. Finally, on the backstretch, she collapsed on the infield padding, gasping for air until her boyfriend and financial backer, Matthias Grosse, arrived on the scene with an inhaler.
Pechstein finished eighth out of 12 skaters, her time of 7 minutes, 5.43 seconds more than 15 seconds behind the Dutch winner .
"I had expected more from her," Visser conceded.
Pechstein still has a couple more events at the Pyeongchang Games, including the mass start race. She could still become the oldest individual gold medalist in Winter Olympic history, a spot currently held by biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway, who was 40 when he won the 10-kilometer sprint at the Sochi Games four years ago.
If Pechstein pulls it off, it will surely raise the ire of those who can't let go of her tainted past. After all, this is an Olympics where the Russians are supposedly banned (wink, wink) for running a massive doping operation.
But for those who've reached middle age and beyond, it's hard to root against her.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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