SOCHI, Russia — Perhaps you noticed them during last Friday’s Opening Ceremony. They were the Americans marching with fife and drum and banner and bandaged heads. The US short-track speedskaters are the five-ringed poster boys and girls of the Spirit of ’14, all about survival and scar tissue.
“We all have suffered blood, sweat, and tears and also share this bond together,” said Jordan Malone, who is a one-man orthopedic ward.
Four years ago in Vancouver, the Americans collected half a dozen medals in the sport, second only to powerhouse South Korea. But Apolo Anton Ohno, the most bemedaled US athlete (two golds, two silvers, four bronzes) in Winter Games history, hung up his skates. And Katherine Reutter, who won two medals in 2010 and was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Sochi squad, retired after a succession of hip and back injuries.
Then the team was torn apart before last season when head coach Chun Jae Su was accused of abusive behavior by the majority of skaters, including five Olympic medalists. Nine others, including current team member Jessica Smith, supported Chun and some continued to train with him.
Chun and assistant Yeo Jun Hyung were forced to resign and Chun was banned from coaching for two years for his role in skater Simon Cho’s sabotage of a Canadian rival’s skates during the 2011 world team championships.
The Yanks hit bottom at last year’s individual championships, leaving Hungary without a medal, and went into the Olympic season hoping to put their divisive nightmare behind them.
“Ultimately there was a big problem and it was a meltdown,” said US coach Steven Gough, who’d directed Canada to five medals in 2010, before last month’s trials. “We’re trying to make the best of it right now on pretty short notice. There are bigger problems that need to be fixed but this year the main focus is, let’s get some success at the Games.”
While there’s no chance that the Americans will match the six medals they earned last time, they have a strong chance for a gold medal in Thursday’s 5,000-meter men’s relay, which they have never won.
“We definitely have a couple of bull’s-eyes on our back,” said Eddy “The Jet” Alvarez, whose mates won two of the four World Cup relays this season.
Winning a gold, which the Yanks didn’t manage in any event four years ago, would be an exuberant turnaround after Monday’s rough debut. J.R. Celski, the team’s ace, just missed a medal in the 1,500 (in which he took bronze in Vancouver) while Alvarez was disqualified in the semifinals for interference. In the women’s 500, only Emily Scott survived the heats. Alyson Dudek was disqualified while Smith fell down on the first lap. And the US didn’t qualify in the women’s 3,000-meter relay, where it won bronze in 2010.
“It breaks my heart,” said Dudek, the only Olympic veteran on the three-woman team, the smallest since short-track became a medal sport in 1992.
Few US teams have absorbed the physical and emotional battering that the short-trackers have been through. Celski, who nearly severed his femoral artery when he gashed his leg at the 2009 team trials, broke an ankle bone and tore ligaments. Malone, who reckons that he’s had 16 broken bones during his career plus a damaged ACL, once severed the connecting bones in his face in an inline crash.
“You should see how it is for me filling out medical forms,” said Malone, who cracked ribs at the trials. “When it asks, ‘How many plates and rods do you have in you?,’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to need more paper.’ Luckily, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ has a good set of doctors.”
Smith may need surgery after the Games for a torn quadriceps. And Scott’s mother, who is a drug addict, is in jail for the second time. Her father, who’d never been outside of the States, came here to watch.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Scott. “It’s kind of not been just my dream, it’s been my dad’s dream as well. He’s my best friend and it’s always been him and I. It just feels that it wouldn’t really be complete without him here.”
Just getting here required crowdfunding for her and Smith, who’s paying her own expenses to train with Chun.
“I had my funding cut drastically so I had to turn to strangers,” said Scott. “Six hundred and fifty donors donated to me. It just goes to show the whole nation is behind us and wants to see us fulfill our dreams.”
America has always loved underdogs. Two of the guys — Chris Creveling and Kyle Carr — are Jersey boys from Flemington who come out of the Frenchtown Roller Rink. Malone is from Denton, Texas. Alvarez began as a Miami inliner. If they end up atop the relay podium at the Iceberg Skating Palace, they’ll have validated the Spirit of ’14.
“We’re having fun out here,” said Alvarez. “Just kind of ready to let it all loose. Let the tiger out of its cage, right?”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.