BEIJING — At 6:50 a.m. Tuesday speed skater Casey Dawson landed in China.
At 6:54 p.m. he was at the starting line of the 1500m at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Dawson posted an Instagram story showing his room in the athlete village with the caption, “Made it!!”
He didn’t mention his bags, but that would have been captioned “Didn’t make it!!”
So, Dawson skated on borrowed blades and something else: “Right now I’m just running on pure adrenaline,” he said. “I’m definitely fatigued … It was quite the experience just to get to the line. I didn’t think I was going to get here in the first place.”
Dawson clocked 1 minute, 49.45 seconds to place 28th in the 1500, which was won by defending champion Kjeld Nuis of the Netherlands, who set an Olympic record with his time of 1:43.21. Nuis eclipsed the time of countryman Thomas Krol, who first broke Derek Parra’s 20-year-old Olympic record one pair earlier in 1:43.55.
Joey Mantia of Team USA, who had been considered a favorite in the 1500 based on his pair of World Cup wins this season, was sixth (1:45.26) while teammate Emery Lehman finished 11th (1:45.78).
Mantia, Lehman, Dawson and Ethan Cepuran will compete in team pursuit, an event in which they hold the world record.
Dawson’s saga began three weeks ago when he tested positive for COVID-19. “I literally took 45 tests the past couple of weeks just to finally test negative and to get here,” he said. “Once I got a negative test I was riding high, but when I got a positive test I’d be on the ground just crying.”
Dawson tested negative for the first time around Feb. 1, and he thought he would pass his two required PCR tests with plenty of time to make his first individual event, the 5000m on Feb. 6.
But Dawson was unaware that anyone entering the closed loop who had COVID-19 recently had to undergo four tests.
In addition, the lab that was originally approved for official testing was removed from the list, so the tests he took there were voided. He figures that cost him another couple of days.
The uncertainty took a toll on Dawson. He would think he was on his way to his first Olympic Games and then his trip kept getting pushed back. First, he ran out of time to make his first individual event, and the clock was ticking on the 1500m.
“I thought my individual chances were gone with the wind,” he said. “There’s obviously anger and a lot of emotions going through my head. I just block those out and focused on getting here.”
The 21-year-old said his belief in the Olympic dream is what kept him going. “When I stepped on the first flight, I knew I was finally coming to Beijing.”
On Feb. 5, Dawson traveled from Park City, Utah, to Atlanta. He then had to go through Paris to get to Beijing, with the final portion of his trip more than 20 hours. “I was really stressed out just getting here, so it was hard to find time to sleep,” he said.
He was also busy doing some easy exercises to get some blood flowing through his legs while he sat on the plane. Then Dawson arrived to find out that his bags did not. He thinks they might still be in Paris.
Luckily, Dawson had a suit in his carry-on, but he had to scramble to find blades that were similar to his own set-up from a generous Latvian. His coach knew the coach of Haralds Silovs, who finished 24th in the race.
“I’m super grateful,” Dawson said.
He still had to get accustomed to the new blades and overcome the mental barrier that came with it -- but is hopeful that won’t be an issue once he gets his bags.
“If I get my luggage or not, I’m still an Olympian,” he said.
Dawson said people have been following his journey through his social media and stories about his ordeal.
“The support has been crazy,” he said.
Dawson kept up with his teammates while he was in limbo.
Lehman said when he first saw Dawson, “He looked very happy to be here. We were happy to have him.”
However, it was a bit of a rude awakening for Lehman. “Someone actually locked our door from the inside this morning,” he said, “so I was greeted by some banging on the door at 9 in the morning and I let him in. And then went right back to bed.”
Lehman doesn’t envy what Dawson went through. “Usually when you travel that long, I think we waited three days before we skated,” he said. “For him to come in, touch the ice and skate all within 12 hours of landing and the time change and the jet lag and sitting on the plane for that long, it’s something I’m glad I would not have to do.”
Now Dawson has a few days to think about it. Team pursuit quarterfinals are Sunday.
“It’s just been ‘go’ the whole time,” he said. “Tomorrow, I’ll get some time and soak it all in.”
For Mantia, it’s time to prepare for three more events: the 1000m, team pursuit and mass start.
But he realizes that he let the 1500 slip through his fingers.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Mantia, who turned 36 on Monday. “I really thought that this was my chance. I expected to win. I didn’t feel like it was so out of my reach, but you’re halfway in the race and you just know it’s not going to happen.”
Mantia said he hasn’t felt comfortable on his skates since he’s been in Beijing and wasn’t very sure-footed.
“It goes up and down throughout the season,” Mantia said. “I’ve just happened to hit the nail on the head every time I’ve raced the 1500 this year. Except for today. It’s unfortunate.”