* Japan set Olympic record to claim gold
* Defending champion Netherlands win silver
* United States get bronze medal (Adds quotes, details)
By Simon Jennings
GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Japan dethroned defending champions the Netherlands to claim gold in the women’s Olympic team pursuit final on Wednesday as the Dutch took the silver medal.
The Japanese trio of Miho Takagi, Ayano Sato and Nana Takagi set an Olympic record of two minutes and 53.89 seconds, beating the previous record set by the Netherlands during Monday’s quarter-final by 1.72 seconds.
The United States edged Canada for bronze, their first Olympic speed skating medal since the Vancouver Games in 2010, with Heather Bergsma, Brittany Bowe and Mia Manganello finishing 0.45 seconds ahead of their local rivals.
“Clocking this lap time at the Olympics will give confidence to all the Japanese people,” a glowing Miho told reporters. “I’m so happy to have achieved an Olympic record that a lot of young Japanese skaters can go for.
Her beaming elder sister Nana added: “I’m so proud that I was able to compete in the best race for the best Olympic Games”.
The Netherlands team of Lotte van Beek, Ireen Wust and Antoinette de Jong easily beat the U.S. in their semi-final, but were outskated by Japan even though they brought in the fresh legs of substitute Marrit Leenstra for the final.
World record holders Japan came into the race as the favourites having won nine of the last 11 World Cup races in the event, including the last six.
Skating in perfect symmetry, with the substitute Sato in for Ayaka Kikuchi who raced in the semi-finals, they stormed out of the gates and kept ahead of the three Dutchwomen who won the event at the previous Winter Olympics in Sochi.
With victory in the bag, the four Japanese skaters took a lap of the track with their flag held between them and then bowed in unison before taking their place on the top step of the podium to accept Japan’s first medal in the event.
The Japanese have now won five of their total 11 medals, including two of their three golds, at the Oval in Gangneung, making it their most successful sport at the current Winter Games and all their speed skating medals have been won by women.
The Dutch, who won 23 of 36 speed skating medals at the Sochi Games, started off on a dominant note in South Korea too, with six gold medals in the first seven races, but have not topped the podium in any of the four races held this week.
“Four years ago we won the gold medal and it’s disappointing that we took the silver medal (here) but I’m still happy,” de Jong said. “It was a fast race from Japan so good job by them.”
The U.S. were understandably thrilled to finally bury the ghost of the Sochi Games at which they failed to win a single medal in the long track events.
That failure has followed the team around ever since, and Bowe spoke of the heart it had taken to win the Olympic medal that has eluded them for eight years.
“We were fighting for a medal,” she said. “We had our strategy going. Obviously, with Heather’s speed and myself, our strategy was to go out there and get a jump start and try to hang on for dear life. That’s what we did.
“That heart is what you saw in that last turn. And it got us the bronze medal.” (Additional reporting by Jane Chung, editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)