SOCHI, Russia -- Zhang Hong put up an early time that no one could beat, giving China its first ever gold medal in speedskating with a stunning victory in the women's 1,000 meters Thursday.
Zhang, who had not done much on the World Cup circuit this season, skated in the seventh of 18 pairs based on her middling results. But she posted a remarkable time of 1 minute, 14.02 seconds, breaking the track record and just missing the Olympic mark set by Chris Witty at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Many fans didn't even see the gold-medal performance, drifting in late to Adler Arena since the supposed big guns were all set to go in the second half of the session. Zhang was merely a spectator after the ice was resurfaced at the midway point, but her smile kept getting bigger as no one came close to beating her time.
"I was very nervous, very excited waiting for the last pair," she said. "I did my best. The final result didn't matter."
No one else was within a second of Zhang's time.
Certainly not the Americans, who turned in another disappointing performance and have yet to win a medal at the speedskating oval.
Heather Richardson came in ranked No. 1 in the World Cup standings, just ahead of teammate Brittany Bowe, who set a world record in the 1,000 on the high-altitude ice at Salt Lake City just three months ago.
Richardson was briefly in third place but knew her time was unlikely to hold up with three pairings left; she wound up seventh in 1:15.23. Bowe went in the next-to-last last group and faded badly over the final lap, winding up eighth in 1.15.47 -- nearly 1½ seconds off the winning time.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," U.S. sprint coach Ryan Shimabukro said. "For whatever reason right now, we are getting skunked."
While few people touted Zhang as a medal contender, her second-place finish at last month's world sprint championships -- even with many of the top skaters choosing not to compete -- showed she was in good form coming into Sochi.
Zhang nearly pulled out a medal in the 500, again skating from an early group that signifies a lower-ranked skater. She led through much of the opening round but went slower in the second heat and finished fourth, missing a bronze by a tenth of a second.
Now, she's got something even better. A gold.
The Dutch settled for the next two spots on the podium, keeping up a staggering performance that has them on the cusp of breaking the record for speedskating medals by a country at a single Olympics -- East Germany's 13-medal showing at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Wust added to her gold in the 3,000 and now has five career medals. Boer picked up her second bronze of the Sochi Olympics, also finishing third in the 500.
Prior to these Winter Games, China had claimed six medals on the big oval -- three silvers and three bronzes, including Wang Beixing's third-place finish in the women's 500 at Vancouver four years ago.
At this point, the Americans would settle for a medal of any color. The last two days have seen some of their biggest names flame out in Sochi, starting with two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis' shocking eighth-place showing in the men's 1,000. Then it was Richardson and Bowe, who had made the podium in all four World Cup meets this season.
Richardson had three victories and a runner-up showing to Bowe in Salt Lake City, where her close friend and rival put up the fastest time ever in 1:12.58. But something clearly went wrong in the lead-up to Sochi, where the Americans haven't come close to a medal in the first six events.
Richardson's seventh-place showing Thursday was, in fact, the best U.S. performance so far at Adler Arena.