Comebacks make for great Olympics stories, and they come in many forms. Just look at what Seth Wescott, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn pulled off Monday.
Wescott came to the Winter Olympics as the reigning champion in snowboardcross, yet also as damaged goods. He hurt his leg and pelvis two months ago and it showed in the races since. He opened Monday’s event by finishing 17th of the 32 riders in qualifying, but found his stride to reach the finals. Then he found himself way back with five jumps left – only to make it up with a thrilling finish that snatched a gold from the host country.
Miller is America’s most decorated Alpine skier and the guy who let everyone down in 2006, failing to finish higher than fifth. He didn’t earn a medal at the two world championships since then and considered retiring before deciding to give the Olympics one more try. After several days of weather delays, he was one of the first guys down the mountain. The result: a terrific time good enough for bronze, just nine-hundredths of a second behind the winner and only the third-ever downhill medal for the United States.
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Vonn was the headliner coming into Vancouver, then all the hype seemed for naught when she revealed a shin injury that made it painful to even wear a ski boot. But the bad weather was a blessing for her recovery and in her first training run early Monday, on the upper section of the course, she had the fastest time in the field.
Then there was a downturn. A bumpy afternoon run on the lower section left her hobbling again and hoping for more weather delays.
With Wescott’s in-race rally and Miller’s career redemption, the United States upped its medal collection to eight, double any other country. Americans have won two golds, topped only by Switzerland’s three.
Two finals remained Monday night, pairs figure skating and the men’s 500 meters in speedskating.
Miller’s nine-hundredths of a second behind winner Didier Defago of Switzerland was the smallest margin between gold and bronze in the history of an event that began in 1948.
"It’s such a relief to get a medal," Miller said. "The fact that those other guys beat me to the hundredth of a second doesn’t bother me."
The only other Americans to win a medal in the event were golds by Tommy Moe in 1994 and Bill Johnson in ’84.
Miller won silver medals in the giant slalom and the combined events in 2002, then went into the 2006 Winter Olympics as one of the headliners, only to make the wrong kind of history. A fifth-place finish in the downhill started his demise; it turned out to be his best finish. A rebellious, couldn’t-care-less attitude made things worse. This time, the big grin he flashed at the end of his run showed how much this meant to him.
"I was psyched," Miller said. "I skied hard."
The most important thing about Vonn’s training run wasn’t her time. It was simply finishing, which fulfilled the requirement of running the course on the same day at least once.
With a starting spot waiting for her, Vonn will turn her attention to being there. The race is scheduled for Wednesday and there’s another training session Tuesday, although she’s now eligible to skip it.
"The course here is just so bumpy," Vonn said. "It was a fight just to make it down the whole way."
When Wescott crossed the finish line ahead of Canada’s Mike Robertson, fans gasped and cheered while the 33-year-old champion fell to the ground, exhausted and exhilarated.
Tony Ramoin of France won the bronze.
American Nate Holland, a five-time Winter X Games champ, spun out early in the final foursome.
Problems with various ice-resurfacing machines caused a lengthy delay during the men’s 500 meters. But that’s not why American Shani Davis dropped out.
Davis finished 18th in the first race, then withdrew to save his energy for the 1,000 on Wednesday night. He’s the defending champion and the world record-holder at that distance.
Switzerland’s Dario Cologna collapsed across the finish line after winning the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country race. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla led from start to finish to win the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle race. In the men’s race, Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer won the silver and Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic took bronze. James Southam was the top American finisher at 48th.
In the women’s event, Kristina Smigun-Vaehi of Estonia, who won two golds in 2006 but has struggled this season, took silver and Marit Bjoergen of Norway got the bronze. Caitlin Compton finished 30th, the best by an American since 1984.
A brief, private memorial service was held at a Vancouver funeral home for the Georgian luger killed in a crash during training, then his casket was flown home for burial.
Three Georgian athletes, including figure skater Otar Japaridze, wearing a black armband on his red team jacket, filed past the open casket to touch the body of their fallen teammate, Nodar Kumaritashvili. His uncle and coach, Felix Kumaritashvili, broke into tears outside the funeral home.
The president of Georgia’s Olympic Committee was accompanying the body back to Georgia, where the casket would be received by a spiritual leader.
Kumaritashvili’s father told The Associated Press in Georgia that shortly before the fatal run he spoke to his 21-year-old son, who said he was worried about the track’s speed.
"He told me, ‘I will either win or die,"’ David Kumaritashvili said. "But that was youthful bravado, he couldn’t be seriously talking about death."
The International Luge Federation already has spoken with officials of the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, about speed and safety.
"We already have agreement with them to construct a track where we are very comfortable that the speed is going to be lower," federation secretary general Svein Romstad told Associated Press Television News.
The head of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is OK with the track at the Whistler Sliding Center.
American skeleton athletes trained on the track Monday for the first time since Kumaritashvili’s death. They were among the majority of competitors who started at the top of the track, bypassing the option of starting from a lower spot. Luge events were moved down the track to make races slower and safer, and indeed there wasn’t a single wreck in the finals.
Johnny Weir already has decided to drop fur from his costume. Now he’s thinking about adding a quadruple jump to his program.
"What do I have to lose?" Weir said. "I’m not a favorite for a medal here. If I feel like doing it, I will do it."
The flamboyant three-time U.S. champion has rarely used the four-revolution jump. Urged to do it by his coach, Galina Zmievskaya, Weir pulled off a good one during practice Monday.
Attention, Canada: Roberto Luongo will be starting in goal against Norway in the Olympics opener Tuesday, and Martin Brodeur will start Thursday against Switzerland.
The Canadians were upset by the Swiss in 2006, on their way to finishing seventh.
Luongo has won eight of his last 12 starts for Vancouver, and will be playing in his home arena. Brodeur has lost three of his last four starts for the New Jersey Devils and has permitted 25 goals in his last eight games.
Canada also decided to keep Ryan Getzlaf on the roster, deciding his sprained left ankle won’t be a problem.
Forward Erika Lawler didn’t break any bones or sprain any ligaments when she crashed into the boards Sunday. But she was bruised enough to skip practice Monday.
Coach Mark Johnson is optimistic Lawler will play Tuesday against Russia. He knows her pretty well, too. She played for him at the University of Wisconsin, winning three national championships in four years and captaining the 2009 team.
Canada beat Switzerland 10-1, another thumping but not as lopsided as the Canadians’ 18-0 win over Slovakia.