SOCHI, Russia – The sport is so fast, and yet the whole thing happened in sickeningly slow motion.
In his first 500-meter event as an Olympic speedskater, Australian Daniel Greig heard the starter's gun, chopped his way into a stride, wobbled briefly, and then tried to steady himself.
He couldn't. The front of his left skate blade drove straight into the ice, creating a sizable hole. Greig fell and slid on his belly as the crowd sighed.
"S---," Greig's coach, Desley Hill, said.
As the skater in the other lane blistered around the track, Greig came to a stop, turned over onto his back, sat up, pulled down his hood, and put his face in his hands. He had been skating well – starting well, in fact – and over the last few weeks he felt he had completed his long transition from inline skating to the Olympic sport he could have medaled in. He moved from Australia to the Netherlands at age 17 to chase this very moment. Now this.
"That wasn't even a scenario I contemplated," Greig said later, his lip curled inward a little and his eyes starting to water. "I almost didn't believe it."
The clock kept going, racing ahead without him. Greig stood up, turned and began to skate ahead.
"That lap," he said, "was probably the longest lap of my skating career."
He was not alone with his thoughts, though. A swell of cheers came up for him from the mostly Russian crowd as he made the loop. That seemed to happen slowly as well, as the 22-year-old Aussie crossed in front of fans with his full face exposed and his shoulders slumped. As Greig continued to skate, the noise grew. There were claps and cheers and whistles and the batting of thundersticks.
"I certainly heard it," he later said with a soft smile. "I definitely appreciate it."
It was a poignant Olympic moment, in which a defeated man found an honor that buoyed him when nothing else could.
"If you have a mistake," Greig said, "if you decide to pull out, it's disrespect to your fellow competitors."
So he skated as the clock ran, crossing the finish line in 80.55 seconds. He was in last, 45.96 seconds behind the Latvian skater in 39th place. Replays in the media section showed his fall again and again – always in slow motion – and even showed a slow-motion replay of workers fixing the huge hole in the ice left behind by Greig's skate.
Greig walked downstairs from the rink and spent four minutes alone. He spoke on the phone to a supporter whose name he didn't want to reveal. It was an anomaly, the man told him. It had nothing to do with his ability. Greig listened quietly.
Hill, Greig's coach, walked to meet him. She was asked on the way if the skater would come out for his now-meaningless second skate.
"He better," she said. "That's the Aussie spirit. We fight."
Greig did not warm up again. He came out to cheers and finished his race. He accepted hugs and condolences from competitors in the mixed zone and took every question from the press. He admitted the second try wasn't his best skate either: "There's no way you can trust yourself" after a fall, he said. But he had trust in something. Whatever it was, he found the strength to skate and now he can look ahead to the 1,000m event later in the week.
"The goal was to do two races to the best of my ability," he said. "I can't say I didn't try my hardest."
Without knowing it, he had paraphrased the Olympic creed. "The essential thing," it reads, "is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
That's not much consolation on a day he'd craved since he was 6 years old. But it will mean much more after he leaves the place where he always wanted to arrive.
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