KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — The Russian Rocket is soaring all alone.
Powering down his home track like a missile on ice, Russia’s Alexander Tretiakov built a surprisingly large lead over Latvia’s Martins Dukurs after the first two heats of men’s Olympic skeleton Friday.
Tretiakov completed his two trips down the Sanki Sliding Center track in 1 minute, 51.99 seconds — 0.56 seconds ahead of Dukurs, the man he’s been trying to catch all season. Dukurs, who won the silver in Vancouver, entered the Sochi Games as a strong favorite.
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"That blew my mind," John Daly of Smithtown, N.Y., said of Tretiakov’s blazing runs. "Alexander, what can you do? It’s his track. It’s his time."
Maybe. He still has to hold off Dukurs, the only one capable of catching him.
Tretiakov had a nearly perfect second run of 55.95 seconds — nearly one second better than the track record Dukurs set a year ago.
"The fact that I managed to get ahead on the first day gives me confidence, but I shouldn’t relax," Tretiakov said. "Martins is a strong competitor. I will try and do all four runs to the maximum."
Dukurs has spent the past four years waiting for the chance to redeem himself after letting the gold medal — which would have been Latvia’s first in the winter games — slide away in Whistler. He led after three runs, but made a critical mistake on his fourth trip, opening the door just enough for Canada’s Jon Montgomery to overtake him and win by 0.07 seconds.
"Those were two pretty good runs compared to training," said Dukurs, who won six of eight events during the World Cup season. "I will look at the video and see what I did. I still feel like I’m right there."
Tretiakov and Dukurs are both more than one second ahead of the rest of the field.
And while it’s a two-man race for gold, there’s a pair of Americans slugging it out for bronze.
Daly, who finished 17th in Vancouver, is in third followed by Matt Antoine of Prairie du Chien, Wis.
The U.S. has not won a medal in Olympic skeleton since 2002, when Jimmy Shea won gold at the Salt Lake Games. But either Daly or Antoine, both of whom were inspired by Shea’s story and broke into skeleton that same year, has a chance to put the Americans back on the podium.
"A medal for the U.S. is a medal for the U.S.," said the confident Daly, who wears a gold-colored helmet. "This program has struggled for a little bit just because we were young. It had nothing to do with equipment or anything like that. We were just young athletes. Now we have the equipment side, we have the coaching side and it’s kind of our time."
"We’ve just got to put down the runs."
Tretiakov skipped the final World Cup event in Koenigssee, Germany so he could train here, and the extra work paid off. On his headfirst descents, he ripped up the 17-curve course, cutting a perfect line into every corner and staying away from bumping many walls to open some distance on Dukurs.
After Antoine broke Dukurs’ track record (56.89) on his first run, Dukurs lowered it by seventh-tenths of a second (56.18) and it looked as if the two-day race would be for silver.
However, Tretiakov, the fastest starter on the skeleton circuit, ripped down the ramp in a record 4.47 seconds and kept picking up speed as he snaked his way down the mountainside course. His second run was even better, electrifying a Russian crowd that cheered when his interval times were announced.
All he has to do now is hold off Dukurs, who won’t go down without a fight. As he learned four years back, no lead is safe.
"It’s sports, you know," he said. "We have two more runs."