Viva Arianna: Italy’s Fontana wins 500 meters in short track
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Choi Min-jeong skated around waving to the South Korean fans who chanted her name. Arianna Fontana grabbed the Italian flag in celebration.
This being wild and wooly short-track speedskating, the result of the women’s 500 meters waited on the judges’ decision.
Fans chanted Choi’s name, as if willing her to win the only Olympic short-track event that has eluded the powerful South Koreans.
But soon Choi was leaning over the rinkside padding listening to consoling words from her coach Tuesday night.
It was Fontana who was celebrating, jumping up and down in her skates and shaking her fists in triumph. The Italian earned her sixth career Olympic medal, equaling Wang Meng of China for most by a short-track skater.
It was her first gold.
“I was chasing it and I finally got it,” she said.
The outcome hung in the balance for several minutes while the referees sorted out a photo finish between Choi and Fontana.
Fontana looked to her coach for confirmation.
“He said, ‘I don’t know, but you did great,'” she said.
The photo showed Fontana’s skate blade crossed barely in front of Choi’s.
“When I saw I was first, I was just yelling and started crying,” Fontana said. “I worked for four years and the last four months were really hard for me. I was really focused on getting here in the best shape ever.”
That meant sacrificing, especially at the dinner table.
“I was on a strict diet,” she said. “I like to eat, I’m Italian, so I like to eat a lot of carbs. I had to cut that off.”
Fontana claimed a medal at her fourth different Winter Games, joining Tania Vicent of Canada as the only female short trackers to do so.
The referees assessed a penalty to Choi that shook up the order of finish.
“I prepared my best and I thought that even though the result does not come out well, I did a competition that I will not regret,” Choi said. “But I feel sorry for the fans of Korea.”
Yara van Kerkhof of the Netherlands took silver and Kim Boutin of Canada earned bronze.
Choi had a roller-coaster ride to the final after surviving a three-way photo finish for second in the quarterfinals that allowed her to advance.
Elise Christie of Britain crashed on the last lap of the furious sprint final in which Boutin pushed Choi and Boutin caught Fontana’s left hand in her face as they careened at top speeds around the rink.
The earlier rounds of the women’s 500 were filled with drama, too.
In a surprise, China failed to advance either of its skaters out of the semifinals. Fan Kexin and Qu Chunyu each got penalized.
Veteran Marianne St-Gelais of Canada was ousted in the quarterfinals after being penalized for impeding.
American teenager Maame Biney, an Olympic rookie at 18, finished last in her quarterfinal. She had to go up against wily veteran Fan, who along with Russian Sofia Prosvirnova, crowded out Biney as she tried to go for the lead early in the race.
“I’m still in that learning process of just trying to get back really quick because I don’t usually get bumped in the start,” Biney said. “I’m usually first or second. I’m going to have to figure out how to get back in the rhythm.”
The 500 was Biney’s only individual event of the games and it left her eager for more.
“Just for next time, the next four years, I’m going to try and find that rhythm and keep going,” she said.
In the men’s 1,000 heats, American John-Henry Krueger advanced to the quarterfinals by winning his heat and avoiding a collision that knocked down two other skaters.
His teammate, J.R. Celski, wasn’t so lucky.
The three-time Olympian was taken down in a three-man crash and he needed repair work on his right skate. Pavel Sitnikov, the Russian who caused the pileup, was penalized for impeding.
That left Celski and two other skaters to compete in the re-start. Celski was in contention early before finishing third, one spot out of advancing to the next round on Saturday.
Krueger and Celski later teamed with Thomas Hong and Aaron Tran for the 5,000 relay heats. They finished third, relegating the U.S. to the B final four years after earning silver in Sochi. That medal represented the only podium finish for the American speedskaters — long track or short track — in a stunning showing.
Among the big names advancing to the 1,000 quarterfinals on Saturday were 1,500 champion Lim Hyo-jun and teammates Hwang Dae-heon and Seo Yira of South Korea, Sjinkie Knegt and Liu Shaolin Sandor of Hungary, Wu Dajing of China, Charles Hamelin of Canada and Russian Semen Elistratov.
Knegt earned silver and Elistratov took bronze in the 1,500.
In the men’s 5,000 relay, China, Canada, South Korea and Hungary advanced to the Feb. 22 final.
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