(L-R) J.R. Celski, Jordan Malone, Chris Creveling and Eddy Alvarez celebrate winning the silver medal in the men's 5,000-meter relay at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 21, 2014.
SOCHI, Russia - Call it a save. The U.S. Olympic Short Track Speedskating Team won its first medal of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in the very last event.
At the Iceberg Skating Palace Friday night, Team USA won the silver medal in the men’s 5,000-meter relay.
“It’s so relieving,” said Eddy Alvarez. “I literally feel like I just came out of a spa.”
The last two weeks had been more like a pressure-cooker. Expected to bring home its usual haul of medals, the U.S. long track and short track team were criticized for their preparation.
The silver medal averted the first speedskating shutout since 1984.
“It’s a huge weight off our back,” said Jordan Malone. “We went into that race and our coach told us he’s just tired of seeing other countries celebrate out there rather than us.
“We went into the last race knowing we were the last hope for a medal for speedskating. And so, I told the guys we’re not going to let skating walk away without a medal.”
Team USA almost didn’t make the final, advancing “by a miracle” said Chris Creveling. Alvarez and a South Korean skater crashed with four laps to go in the semifinal. Both got up, with the Koreans finishing third and Team USA fourth. The ruling that the Korean skater interfered with Alvarez put the U.S. in the A final.
Korea and Canada, the 2010 champion in the event, were both relegated to the B final, removing two strong contenders.
Although Team USA had the No. 1 world ranking based on world cup performances, strong competition was expected from Russia and China.
Then on the first turn, China and the Netherlands both went down. Creveling neatly sidestepped the crash and tucked in behind Russia, with Kazakhstan a distant third.
U.S. coach Stephen Gough said the race should have been called back since the crash came before the fourth block but the starters missed the call.
“My eyes lit up in the first corner,” Creveling said. “That was an opportunity, we trained for four years and I wanted to seize that as soon as it showed itself.”
However, Alvarez, the first Cuban-American male to win a speedskating medal, said, “We didn’t want to get too excited; we still had 45 laps to go. We knew we had to push the pace. We didn’t want them to catch up. Russia did a great job taking that role, which was great for us, because we got to kind of chill behind them.”
Team USA moved into the lead with 16 laps to go, but Russia pulled back in front with eight laps left.
Led by Victor An, who won the 500-meter earlier in the evening, the host country stayed in front to win the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 6:42.100. Team USA also broke the former Olympic record by posting a time of 6:42.371.
“It feels good to leave with a medal,” said J.R. Celski, who was second in the B final of the 500-meter earlier in the night to finish sixth overall “I think it’s tough, we had an opportunity for gold, but it just wasn’t there today. But I think we’re all happy that we’re leaving with a medal and I’m really proud of our team for all the hard work they put in the last four years. Everything came together today and we skated our (butts) off.”
The last chance for an individual medal was also Friday in the women’s 1,000. Jessica Smith finished fourth in the four-woman race while Emily Scott did not advance past the quarterfinals.
That left it up to the relay.
“The thing I think that put us on the podium is that bond we share,” Malone said. “Unfortunately, Kyle (Carr) wasn’t out there with us and it really breaks our hearts, but we had to make the decision that we had to make and he supported that. And he was with us whether he had his skates on or not.”
The four members of the team finally got a chance to skate around the ice with an American flag in hand.
“I’m just in shock,” Creveling said. “We get to bring the silver medal back to our village, back to our teammates, back to our country for long and short track speedskating. It was just a dramatic week for us. To come back with a silver medal with our brothers here in speedskating, I couldn’t be happier.
“I’m really glad this validates the last four years.”