VANCOUVER, British COlumbia -- It isn't a role the United States is accustomed to playing, least of all at an Olympics. But the Americans' almost certain status as the top medal dog at the Vancouver Games is the result of its recurrent role here as successful underdog.
Andrew Weibrecht went all subcanine in the men's downhill, where he won a bronze in defiance of his No. 41 World Cup ranking. Johnny Spillane's three silvers and Bill Demong's gold in Nordic combined weren't entirely unexpected, but when a country repudiates almost 80 years of medal-free futility in any sport, it can hardly be accused of front-running. As for teenage short-track skater J.R. Celski, he bagged a silver only a few months after a mishap in which he cut his leg literally to the bone.
But Friday's results from the Richmond Olympic Oval took the upset to another level and silenced everyone wearing red or orange, which is to say most of the crowd. In team pursuit qualifying, the U.S. took out two of the most emphatic favorites at these Games, the Canadian women and the Dutch men.
The American men, led by that old cowboy Chad Hedrick, denied Sven Kramer of the Netherlands a chance to pick up a second gold medal after his ignominious disqualification in the 10,000 meters last Tuesday. The Dutch suffered from what Kramer called "a lot of discommunication" midway through the race, and the Americans beat them by an astonishing four-tenths of a second. The U.S. men are now guaranteed at least a silver when they skate in Saturday's final. Seizing gold will be a tough task, as their opponent, the Canadian men, set back-to-back Olympic records in their own qualifying bracket.
But then the Canadian women were supposed to have been even more untouchable than their countrymen in the team pursuit, which features national teams of three skaters eliminating one another through quarterfinals, semifinals and a final. Christine Nesbitt had won individual gold at these Olympics. Kristina Groves had won a bronze and a silver. Brittany Schussler hadn't yet medaled, but in December in Calgary she had teamed up with Nesbitt and Groves to reduce the world record in the eight-lap event by more than a second.
But in the women's quarters, the last finisher for the U.S., Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr., crossed the line a couple of blade lengths ahead of the Canadians' straggler, Nesbitt.
When they tossed back the hoods of their speed suits, none of the U.S. women had any idea that they'd won.
"Wow," Swider-Peltz Jr. said, as the result sank in.
"I still can't believe it," Nesbitt said a while later. "To be honest, I don't know what to say."
"I was floored," said Jilleanne Rookard of the U.S. "I had no idea where we were in the race. I just heard a lot of Canadians cheering."
Moments later the victors -- Swider-Peltz Jr and Rookard had teamed with the veteran Jennifer Rodriguez -- gathered beneath the stands to recount their unexpected triumph to reporters. That's when, on a big-screen TV behind them, the U.S. men went off against the Dutch.
"Can we watch this?" Rodriguez asked.
As Hedrick, Jonathan Kuck and Brian Hansen left the start, taking on Holland's Kramer, Jan Blokhuijsen and 1,500-meter gold medalist Mark Tuitert, the U.S. women blurted out commentary. It was as if they were witnessing a replay of their own fresh feat: They're ahead! ... Oh, they're done! ... They're bringing it! . . . Another huge upset!
Little did they know that, before the race, Kuck had been saying to himself, "Wow, the women really beat the Canadians? We might as well do the same thing as the girls."
Like the women, the U.S. men needed a few beats to realize what they'd done. "It was, 'Oh my God, we beat the Dutch,'" said Hansen. "And, 'Oh my God, we won a medal.' Two things at once."
For U.S. Speedskating, today's showing constituted a late-Games gift. The American Olympic team had delivered its record performance despite paltry contributions from the sport that, coming into these Games, had won more winter medals than all others combined. Shani Davis had taken only one of the two golds for which he had come to Vancouver. With Hedrick about to retire, a new generation hadn't yet emerged on the men's side. And the U.S. women had failed to come close to a medal in any individual event.
But if the women can beat Germany Saturday, they'll be guaranteed a silver in the team pursuit. If not, they could still pick up a bronze with a victory over either Japan or Poland in the "B" final.
Meanwhile, to hear Hedrick tell it, Kuck and Hansen, who placed second and third at the 2009 Junior World Championships, are poised to join Trevor Marsicano, who skated the quarterfinal, as the faces of U.S. Speedskating's future on the men's side. "At times, I was the one who was hanging on for dear life," Hedrick confessed. "To skate with these young guys here, I feel like I'm passing on the torch."
As for Kramer, he said, "It's totally not what I expected before the Olympics."
Nor, truth be told, is it what the Americans expected. "We view it like the miracle of 1980," said Marsicano. "A bunch of different backgrounds, a bunch of different skaters, but we all came together and made it happen."