Lucky break helps U.S. nab relay silver after disappointing Olympics

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SOCHI -- Eddy Alvarez was euphoric, bordering on giddy. Winning a silver medal in the 5,000-meter relay, the final event on the last day of short track speed skating in these Olympics, came as such a relief that Alvarez could not help exulting, “I literally feel like I just came out of a spa.”

“It’s a huge weight off our backs,” agreed Jordan Malone, another member of Team USA’s jinx-breaking relay. “We went into the race knowing we were the last hope for a medal in speed skating. The thing that put us on the podium is that bond we share.”

Well, that was certainly one of the things. There was also the anarchy sown by one Freek van der Wart, the Dutch skater who threw the race into chaos in its opening seconds. After engaging in a bit of fender tag with the Chinese skater in front of him, The Freek lost the edge on his right skate, taking out the Chinese skater, and the Kazakh behind him for good measure.

 “We didn’t really plan on everyone falling at the first corner except for us and the Russians,” deadpanned American short track head coach Stephen Gough. No, but the Americans will take it.

Fifty-three speedskating medals had already been awarded, in long and short track, going into Friday night’s relay. The Netherlands had won 22 of them. Italy earned three. Poland won a medal, as did the Czech Republic. America, for its part, enjoyed zero trips to the podium.

So, no, Team USA wasn’t going to be picky about the color of the medal or dwell on the fact that it was giftwrapped for them. Indeed, that silver medal must now serve as a fig leaf for US Speedskating officials mortified by their spectacular underachievement in Sochi.

While the woes of the short track team tended to be eclipsed by the asteroid-sized egg laid by their long track brethren -- who were thought to have a chance to bring home 10 medals; doesn’t that seem crazy now? -- they were still fairly … woeful. J.R. Celski, who won a pair of bronze medals in Vancouver and was the closest thing the Americans had to a short track star, placed fourth in the 1,500, crashed out of the quarterfinals in the 1,000, then failed to get out of the semis in the 500.

Alvarez had been in fine shape during his heat of the 1,000 meters until being low-bridged by out-of-control Canadian Charles Hamelin. Alvarez responded with the three-word mantra used by the members of this tribe to dull the disappointment of such unfair ousters: “That’s short track.”

“That’s short track for you,” observed Jessica Smith, following her fourth-place finish in Friday night’s 1,000-meter final. Smith was in excellent spirits; for the Americans at these Olympics, fourth place is reason to celebrate. She was referring to the misfortune of Canadian Valerie Maltais, who clipped her left skate on the final lap of her semifinal, crashing out of the race and, in so doing, presenting an engraved invitation to Smith to advance to the finals. (Smith came in fourth in that race. Out of four.)

“You feel bad for her,” said Smith of Maltais, “but at the same time I fell in the 500 [after] getting taken out, and nobody cared. So we just move forward and deal with the [bad] breaks, and take the breaks we can get.”

There are breaks, and then there are Breaks. The Freek’s pratfall – he basically served as a kind of human Swiffer, wiping three teams out of contention, including his own – was a Big Break. “My eyes lit up,” recalled Chris Creveling, who alertly sidestepped the carnage. “To see that opening … I just seized the day.”

The Americans caught a second break soon after the first. The starters, who by rule must stop a race if there is a crash involving multiple skaters before the fourth block, were apparently tweeting or playing Angry Birds when The Freek hit the deck. The race was allowed to go on. “That was straight-up mistake,” said Gough, the American coach. “That race should’ve been re-started.” He paused, then delivered this arid one-liner: “We woulda won, otherwise.”

As it was, the Americans drafted off the Russians for the first 33 or so laps – “We got to chill behind them,” as Alvarez put it – until Creveling streaked past Vladimir Grigorev. Seven laps later, the great Viktor Ahn snatched the lead back with an authoritative pass of Celski. It was Ahn who crossed the finish line first, for his eighth Olympic medal and his sixth Olympic gold. At the end of a short track program in which the Americans demonstrated that they haven’t come close to replacing Apolo Ohno, who retired after the Vancouver Games, Ahn officially took from Ohno the unofficial title of the best short track speed skater, ever.

Losing to a guy like Ahn, said Malone, “is as good a loss as you can have. He’s probably one of the nicest guys out there, he’s amazing to watch, and he’s amazing to skate against. He’s a humble winner, and a humble loser.”

Silver was, if not the spa Alvarez imagined, a kind of oasis after a journey through the desert. In these Games, the American short trackers learned much about losing with humility. Just not as much as their friends skating long track.