SOCHI, Russia — America's speed skating nightmare continues.
The USA failed to place among the top three Thursday in the women's 1,000 meters, another race in which American skaters were expected to factor into medal contention, leaving the team shut out of the speed skating medal table after six events.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," coach Ryan Shimabukuro told the Associated Press. "For whatever reason right now, we are getting skunked."
For America, it was another event to forget; for China, it was a moment to savor.
China's Zhang Hong (1:14.02), known more for her work in the 500, won her country's first Olympic speed skating gold. Her time, a course record, was less than two-tenths of a second shy of the Olympic record (1:13.83) set by the USA's Chris Witty in 2002 and nearly seventh-tenths of second ahead of her closest competition.
Her heat came in the seventh of 18 pairs, leaving Zhang to sweat out her path to gold through an additional four skaters, a break for ice preparation and the final 18 members of the field.
"I was very nervous, very excited waiting for the last pair," Zhang said. "I don't think anybody could have understood how I felt waiting."
After completing her turn in the 12th pair, China's Wang Beixing remained on the stage within the oval and tracked the remaining skaters, praying Zhang's time would hold and give China a historic Olympic first.
"I was so nervous," Wang said. "I just prayed that China would get a gold medal and she did the perfect race. I am so proud of her for winning a medal for China."
Netherlands' Ireen Wust (1:14.69) finished second for her second medal of these Games and the fifth of her career, and Netherlands' Margot Boer (1:14.90) took bronze. The Dutch have 12 medals, tied for the second most by an individual country in a single Games, trailing the 13 won by East Germany in 1988.
"What is happening here is unique," Wust said of Netherlands' performance. "We've been good the whole season, and we showed it again at the Olympic Games."
The top two American contenders were left in what has become a familiar position for the country's best: Heather Richardson (1:15.23) finished seventh and Brittany Bowe (1:!5.47), the current world recordholder, was eighth. Richardson and Bowe ranked first and second in the World Cup standings, respectively, entering the Games.
"I think other countries are just getting really fast," Richardson said. "That shows, because me and Brittany were one and two going into the race, and we finished seventh and eighth. But we gave it our best shot."
With six races to come, the USA faces the specter of enormous Olympic failure.
Only twice in Winter Games history, and not since 1984, has the USA failed to earn at least one speed skating medal. The team had made enormous strides in the last three games, in fact, winning eight medals in 2002 — tying Germany and Netherlands for the most in Salt Lake City — seven in Torino in 2006 and four in Vancouver.
If not as inexplicable as Shani Davis's eighth-place finish in the men's 1,000, Bowe's inability to secure a medal was a disappointment. She came into Sochi as the distance's recordholder after posting a time of 1:12.58 during a November event at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City.
But she faded down the stretch of her second lap after a solid start, finishing almost three seconds off her record time.
"I thought I was on a really good one," Bowe said. "I had a very fast opener for me, had a really solid first lap. Was trying to hang in there on the last lap but I think I lost quite a bit of time on that last lap.
"When I looked up at the board I thought it was going to be a faster time. So immediately I was pretty disappointed. But you have to take it all in with perspective. Those top three girls deserved it today."
As the races add up — and the disappointments pile up — USA's hopes for Olympic success are dwindling. Some of the team's best events, such as the women's 1,000 and men's 1,000, have come and gone without an American on the medal podium; while other opportunities remain, the USA was banking for at least one medal from each of these two events in particular.
"It's impossible to pinpoint one, two, three things," Bowe said. "There are so many different variables. We just have to stick together like we have all year. Hopefully things can turn around.
"Are we where we wanted to be? No. But that's just part of it. We just move on from here."
The chance for redemption comes in the next nine days. On Saturday, Davis attempts to atone for his 1,000-meter failure in the 1,500. That's followed Sunday by the women's 1,500, where Richardson and Bowe again are contenders. The men and women hold their team pursuit events on Feb. 22, with the men considered one of the event's best but the women a long shot.