Sports have a unique capacity to embolden dreams that come from an abstract place. Dreams that exist only in the athlete's brain, and that add all the meaning of life to something as plain as skiing in circles. They can even alchemize a puck-sized hunk of bronze into "gold with diamonds in it."
That's how Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdic would come to refer to the third-place medal she won in the 1.4 kilometer classic sprint at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In a sport most Americans know nothing about, a competitor from a country most of us could not place on a map pulled off the year's most amazing feat of athleticism.
Under normal circumstances, returning to Slovenia with a single bronze would have been a disappointment for Majdic. She came into Vancouver as a favorite to win possibly two golds, and perhaps three medals overall. But consider the morning before the 1.4k sprint on February 17th: Just 20 minutes before the first of four rounds to be held over six hours, Majdic slid off a curve during warmups and fell 10 feet into a craggy creek bed. After Olympic volunteers came to her aid, Majdic, who was shrieking in pain (but nonetheless repeating: "Take me to the starting line! Take me to the starting line!") was allowed to start in the back of the qualifying round to give her more time to recover. She finished a lowly 19th, an ominous sign for the event favorite. After the round, a doctor quickly examined her and determined that nothing was broken, and that the problem was just pain. That was good enough for Majdic, though not entirely accurate. A thorough examination that evening found five broken ribs.
Still, as the day wore on, Majdic gained strength, at least until late in the semi-final round. That's when one of the broken ribs cracked apart and punctured her lung -- an organ vital for endurance athletes. Majdic, worried about numbing a muscle that she needed to compete, would not take a painkiller injection. With each slide of her skis the dull clicking inside her chest as the rib shifted back and forth assured her that something was horribly wrong. With just one round to go, she had had enough. "The pain had lasted five hours," she told me a week later. "I was totally exhausted."
But then she thought of the 22 years she fought to become the best in the world. She thought of the years when her parents wanted her to give up skiing and go to school and start a family. She thought of her disappointments at the previous two Olympics, where equipment mishaps doomed her medal chances. She thought of her tiny country that had not won an individual medal at the Winter Olympics in 16 years and which was always out-funded by its bigger neighbors. She thought of the sacrifices: the six-year relationship that ended because "he just couldn't understand anymore that I'm skiing," she said. She thought of the award ceremony for the most popular Slovenian (the president won it the year before) just before the Games that she skipped because she did not want to stay out late or risk getting sick and compromise her training. And so she continued into the final round, furiously double-poling down the last straight to take the bronze medal before collapsing in the snow and screaming in agony as medics carried her limp body away from Whistler Olympic Park.
That night, Majdic, against doctor's orders, showed up at the medal ceremony in a wheelchair with a tube in her chest to relieve the pressure built up outside the punctured lung. After the ceremony, Majdic spent several days in the hospital, crying in pain (while refusing morphine), and crying over the other races she would miss. But eventually her spirits came around. "Obviously, I had a different destiny," she said, "that I must show people not a gold, but a story."
One that is impossible to forget.