SOCHI, Russia, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The United States skaters left it late, but after 12 long track lapses and six short track slip-ups they finally scored a first medal of the Sochi Games on Friday.
The men’s 5,000 metre relay quartet of Eduardo Alvarez, J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling and Jordan Malone avoided an early pile-up to finish second behind Russia and collect a long-awaited silver in the final Sochi skate.
“It’s so rewarding to be here with the medal and not empty-handed,” Celski told reporters.
”I‘m so proud of my team for winning this medal, we were trying all of our lives to get to this moment.
“It’s awesome. It’s not gold but at the same time we worked hard to get to this moment and I am really happy and proud of these guys.”
The U.S. had failed in each of the 10 speed skating events at the Adler Arena before their men’s and women’s pursuit teams were knocked out in the first round on the long oval earlier on Friday to cap a first Games without a medal for 30 years.
The long track team had been hindered by a row about outfits, with the team voting to ditch the ‘Mach 39’ suits made specifically for the Olympics by Under Armour halfway through proceedings, despite billing them as the fastest ever.
Their failings resulted in them losing their position as the best Olympic speed skating nation as the Dutch dominated on the long oval to move past the U.S. gold total of 29.
The short track team pointed to some poor fortune.
“They just need to finish the race standing up. A lot of the times it was not a mistake on their part. They were taken out,” head coach Guy Thibault said prior to the final day.
Luck or no luck, repeated failings at the Iceberg Skating Palace meant all hope of avoiding a first Games without a medal since Nagano 1998 came down to the final four events of the fast and furious short track competition on Friday.
Emily Smith was the first to fail, missing out on a women’s 1,000m semi-final berth as she fell and slid over the finish line in third to miss out on the two qualifying berths.
Celski’s hopes of a medal in the men’s 500m were then hit with a fourth place finish in the first semi that sent him only to the B final, leaving Jessica Smith to go in the semis of the women’s 1,000m.
Hopes were raised when Smith sneaked into the four-woman final after Canadian Valerie Maltais wiped out on the last corner to gift the American a second-place finish but she could finish only fourth in the medal decider as South Korean Park Seung-hi took gold.
The Americans did not enter a team in the women’s 3,000m relay so it was all down to the men in the eighth and final short track race to ensure the team would not go home empty handed.
The Americans avoided a crash at the start of the final between the Dutch and Chinese to allow them and Russia to break clear and, though they took the lead briefly, they could not prevent the Viktor Ahn inspired hosts from taking gold.
“It was crazy. I thought they would blow the whistle and call it back, because there were two falls in the first corner and they usually do that,” Celski said of the start.
The quartet stepped onto the podium holding hands, the delight on their faces probably coupled with relief at avoiding a whitewash.
“We’ve had some serious bad luck,” Malone told reporters.
“We said that we would not let the U.S. skaters come home without a medal.” (Reporting by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)