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Olympics: U.S. short track team earns silver, breaks medal drought

Published February 21, 2014 9:50 pm

Speedskating • All four relay team members live along the Wasatch Front.
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Sochi, Russia •Â Their own coach said the race should have been called back and re-started.

But the four Americans who finally broke through and won a medal for U.S. Speedskating in their last chance at the Sochi Olympics didn't care — they all had earned silver in the men's short-track team relay on Friday night, salvaging an otherwise miserable performance for their federation here and redeeming a quadrennial beset by chaos and scandal.

"It's a huge weight off our back," skater Jordan Malone said. "We went into that race, and our coach told us he was just 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 speedskating, so I told the guys, 'We're not going to let speedskating walk away without a medal.' "

All four of the skaters — J.R. Celski, Eddy Alvarez, Chris Creveling and Malone — are good friends who live along the Wasatch Front and train at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, but they had not enjoyed much luck up to that point.

While their long-track counterparts were going without a medal for the first time in 30 years amid much controversy, they were crashing out of their races or failing to advance through their heats.

So once Salt Lake City's Jessica Smith finished fourth in the women's 1,000 — she made it to the final thanks to a crash ahead of her in the semis — the men were the only ones left with a chance at the podium.

And suddenly, their luck changed.

Creveling was barely off the starting line in the wild 45-lap race when two rivals in front of him, from China and the Netherlands, tripped and crashed.

Coach Stephen Gough said later that under the rules, the starter should have called the skaters back to start again because the crash occurred before they had gone mostly around the curve. But in the moment, Creveling deftly avoided his fallen rivals and allowed the Americans to continue what was effectively a two-team race against Russia and Viktor Ahn, who now must be counted as the greatest short-tracker of all-time.

"My eyes lit up, in the first corner," Creveling said. "That was our opportunity. We trained for four years, and I wanted to seize that as soon as it showed itself. … We left everything out on the ice, and made it happen for the U.S."

And Ahn made it happen for Russia.

The skater formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo won three golds and a bronze for his native South Korea at the 2006 Turin Olympics, then switched nationalities after a falling out with Korean skating officials who left him off the team for the 2010 Vancouver Games. He won the 500 meters earlier in the evening, then led the Russians to the relay victory in Olympic-record time to repeat his feat from Turin — medals in every race on the program, including three golds.

That tied Ahn with American Apolo Ohno with eight career short-track medals, but six of them are gold. Ohno won two gold, two silver and four bronze medals.

"He just shows he is the best guy in the world, definitely here," Ohno told the Associated Press. "He's got eight medals, six gold. Perhaps the best ever to put short track speed skates on. Yeah, I would say so."

But the race was just as sweet for the Americans, who endured a tumultuous four years leading into Sochi and also broke the previous Olympic record.

Former coach Jae-Su Chun was ousted and banned from the sport for two years in 2012 amid accusations of abuse, and former teammate Simon Cho admitted sabotaging a rival's skate at the world championships, purportedly at Chun's behest.

The scandal split the team, and while Smith paid her own money to continue training with Chun outside the national-team program, the men stayed with inside the federation with Gough as their coach.

And then came the medal drought.

The long-trackers are leaving Sochi without a medal for the first time since the 1984 Sarajevo Games, something that has happened to the short-trackers only once since their sport entered the Olympics in 1992.

They weren't going to let it happen again.

And even though the men couldn't quite match Ahn in the final laps in front of his adopted home crowd at the Ice Skating Palace, they were more than elated with their accomplishment.

"Of course, it was a little stressful," said Alvarez, the former shortstop at Salt Lake Community College who recovered from double-knee surgery two years ago. "We didn't perform individually. We had some bad luck. But, man, guys? It's so relieving. It's sooo relieving. I literally feel like I just came out of a spa."