SOCHI, Russia — As she drew within seconds of the finish line in her quarterfinal heat for the short track 1,000 meters, Emily Scott slipped and fell backward, causing her to slide, on her backside, into third place.
For most of two weeks, it was that sort of Winter Games for U.S. Speedskating — embarrassing, disappointing, inexplicable, miserable.
And then, suddenly, it wasn't.
In its final chance for a medal in Sochi, the USA claimed silver in the men's 5,000 meter short track team relay, salvaging, if only in the slightest degree, U.S. Speedskating's forgettable Olympic Games.
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"It's huge. It's a huge weight off our back," said Jordan Malone, one of four cogs on the U.S. relay. "We went into that race, and our coach told us, 'I'm tired of seeing other countries celebrate out there rather than us.' We went into the last race knowing we were the last hope for a medal for speed skating."
Said coach Stephen Gough, "It's a great way to end the Games. When we dreamt about how we would do, we obviously had a bigger vision and the results to show for it, but let's finish on a high and go home happy."
The silver comes after 19 speed skating events across long track and short track ended in similar fashion: without an American on the medal podium. As the losses mounted, with each disappointment amplified by layers of controversy, the remaining crop of skaters sensed and acknowledged the pressure — and, in a way, seemed driven by it.
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"The pressure was definitely building," Eduardo Alvarez said. "We knew coming into the Olympic Games we were No. 1. We knew we had the potential, we knew we had the speed. Of course, it was a little stressful. We didn't perform individually. We had some bad luck."
The sense of relief was palpable on the podium, as the four skaters — Malone, Alvarez, J.R. Celski and Chris Creveling — gripped hands, stepped onto the dais as a team and beamed, drinking in a successful run after weeks of skating frustration.
"Definitely a relief," Alvarez said. "Just to pull through, it's an unbelievable feeling, a relief. And it shows how strong a bond we have. We have a brotherhood. To go home to the U.S. not empty-handed is… awesome."
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The mad dash for silver in the 5,000 — an event best described as 40-plus laps of roller derby on skates — was aided by an early pileup. Less than five seconds into the race, skaters from China and Netherlands went down in a heap, leaving three teams — Kazakhstan joining the USA and Russia — well ahead of the pack.
After a Kazakhstan misstep later in the race, gold came down to the USA and Russia, led by multiple-medal winner Viktor An.
Russia would finish at 6:42.100, setting an Olympic record, followed by the USA (6:42.371), China (6:48.341), Netherlands (6:49.149) and Kazakhstan (6:54.630).
But in fitting Olympic fashion, in the vein of Under Armour-designed suits and heavily debated pre-Sochi training methods, the USA medal comes with a dash of controversy.
Normally, if a team or several teams crash so early in a race — before the fourth block after the starting line — the race starters will blow the event dead and call the skaters back; despite crashing before the fourth block, China and Netherlands were given no such reprieve.
"Usually the starter's supposed to call that race back," Gough said, calling a failure to do so "a straight-out mistake."
"If you've seen the replay, that should've been started, stopped and restarted again," he said. "So I feel real bad, I feel bad for the Dutch coach, the Chinese coach, the Kazakh coach, only because I know how it feels."
China skater Wu Dajing,one of the skaters who went down, expected to be recalled to the starting line.
"At first I was pushed a bit by the Russian skater, then the Netherlands skater touched my skates when he was falling down and I fell as well," he said. "When such a thing happens, usually judges call a restart. But it didn't happen this time. I didn't think much but got up and kept skating to catch up with the other teams."
Controversial or no, the early race wipeout looked the opening the USA had been waiting for.
"My eyes lit up in the first corner. That was our opportunity," Creveling said. "You know, you train four years and then everyone sees that. It showed itself and we did our best. We left everything on the ice. We just made it happen for the U.S., and that's what we train for, right?"
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It will also be the final — and only — crowning moment for U.S. Speedskating at the Winter Games. American skaters will leave Sochi with one medal in 20-plus events, an unexpectedly weak showing, but will leave short track on a high note.
"It's not that we aren't champions, we just took the wrong way," Malone said. "There's more than one way to the top of the mountain. U.S. Speedskating just has to find a different way now. I have 100% faith that we'll do that and we'll come back in four years much stronger than we are now."