SOCHI, Russia — Finally, the luck changed. Finally, the medal came. Finally, there were a few smiles on the faces of American skaters.
While the fallout from the struggles of the United States' short-track team and the abject failure of its long-track program at these Winter Olympics will be felt long after the Sochi Games are done, the Americans' final chance to medal brought a silver lining — literally.
The men's 5000-meter relay team of J.R. Celski, Jordan Malone, Eddy Alvarez and Chris Creveling was unable to overhaul host nation Russia in a thrilling race at the Iceberg Skating Palace. But after the disappointment for American skaters in the 2014 Winter Olympics, the second-place finish and long-awaited trip to the podium was a triumph.
"It is a huge weight off our back," said Malone, his voice cracking with the emotion of a fraught Olympics. "We went into that race knowing we were the last hope for a medal for speedskating. It was a huge amount of pressure."
It wasn't just poor form that had hamstrung the short-track skaters since the start of the Games: They also suffered some serious misfortune. That all changed here, when on the very first corner China and the Netherlands crashed and fell way off the pace. The race should have been called back and restarted — an error of officiating so serious that U.S. coach Stephen Gough said he "felt bad" about it afterward.
But it was an opportunity the U.S. was in no mood to spurn, and it chased the Russians' tails and a potential gold medal for the next six minutes.
The nature of the relay, with its rapid-fire exchanges, made for a tactical battle. The U.S. had to fight to keep pace when Russian superstar and Sochi triple-gold-medalist Victor An was taking his turn, but was able to often make up ground when Malone was matched up against the weaker Ruslan Zakharov.
The Americans grabbed a brief lead with around a third of the race to go, but with seven laps left Russia went back in front. After the final handover, An turned on the jets, speeding away from Celski and claiming his second gold of the night and third of the Games.
For the Americans, though, there were no complaints, and this time, no disappointment.
"It is so relieving. I feel like I just came out of a spa," said a beaming Alvarez, never one to opt for a bland quote when slapstick will do. "We were struggling for sure individually. It shows how strong a bond we had. To go home not empty-handed is awesome. Cha-ching."
For the U.S. to avoid the carnage on the first lap took some quick thinking from Creveling, who was able to step inside to miss the danger and put his team and Russia well clear.
[Photos: Team USA medal winners]
"My eyes lit up," Creveling said.
Earlier in the day, it looked like the same old story. Both men's and women's long-track pursuit teams saw any hope of a medal at the Adler Arena evaporate.
Then, once short-track got underway, Celski was eliminated in the men's 500 meters after finishing fourth in his semifinal — despite going into the Games as the reigning world record holder.
Jessica Smith performed well and benefited from a slice of good fortune, qualifying for the final when Canada's Valerie Maltais slipped ahead of her on the last bend of the 1000-meter semifinals. Smith finished fourth in the final, won by South Korea's Park Seung-hi.
Fortunately for the U.S., there were still four men who hadn't yet accepted the script of failure and the increasingly likelihood that the program would finish 0-for-Sochi.
"It feels good to leave with a medal," Celski said. "We skated our butts off."
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