Americans shut out in sliding sports
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- For USA Luge and USA Bobsled and Skeleton, the two American federations that oversee the three sliding sports, winning a medal at these rapidly fading Vancouver Olympics comes down to three disciplines in one sport: bobsled.
In two of the three -- Shauna Rohbock and Michelle Rzepka in women's bobsled and the men's four-man team led by Steven Holcomb -- the Americans are strongly favored to medal, and are at least an even bet to win gold. The two-man men's team of Curt Tomasevicz and Steven Holcomb are in medal contention after two runs. That the Americans have their best sport for the last competition and can leave the sliding sports on a positive note, as they say, is the good news.
The bad news is that no one thought that by this juncture of the games the Americans would be shut out of the medal count in the sliding sports, especially during what is sizing up to be the best Olympic Winter Games ever for the U.S. federation.
As the final competition of the Olympics nears, both the bobsled and luge federations -- which oversee sports in which Americans have traditionally played at a disadvantage but believed this was the year for optimism -- face hard questions based on the results of the past few days.
Here are the facts: The U.S. went 0-for-3 in the men's luge, 0-for-3 in women's luge, 0-for-2 in men's doubles luge (there is no women's doubles), 0-for-2 in women's skeleton and 0-for-3 in men's skeleton.
Inside of those facts are nuances: Noelle Pikus-Pace posted a gallant, emotional fourth place in skeleton, just one-tenth of a second from a bronze medal. Zach Lund slid brilliantly over his final three runs, but a 10th-place first run left him in a deep hole and he finished in fifth place, an inch from a medal. In men's doubles, Christian Niccum and Dan Joye, the backups to the more experienced and most decorated first team of Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin, finished a promising sixth in their first Olympics. Personally for Pikus-Pace, Lund, Niccum and Joye, these Olympics were clearly successful.
The larger issue is what comes next for U.S. Luge, how to actually analyze the results, and what the forward strategy will be for the U.S. team to better compete with the formidable European teams.
"My attitude is, if we don't win, the Canadians should win. And their attitude should be if they don't win, they should want us to win," a luge official told me. "North American luge is at a great disadvantage. The Europeans can slide, and then they get to go home, but our athletes are away from home so much of the year, it has a huge mental impact on our sliders."
One suggestion around the track was for the Americans and Canadians to essentially combine forces in what would be an informal partnership. With only two luge tracks in America -- in Park City, Utah, and Lake Placid, N.Y. -- the Americans are at a constant disadvantage when it comes to securing track time.
The arrival of the Whistler track now gives Canada two tracks as well (the other is in Calgary). A U.S.-Canada alliance could strengthen the sport for both countries.
If U.S. Luge is so inclined, the federation can look at the past week and erase it as a bad dream. The tragic death of Nodar Kumaritashvili disrupted how the Americans approached these games, and ultimately, how they performed. So, too, did the gamesmanship employed by the Canadians in restricting practice time on the track, a decision that in retrospect has become a serious one. Perhaps, with more practice time on the track, Lund and Pikus-Pace might have been able to shave off a few precious fractions.
But the moment is over.
For the women's luge team, none of the sliders had much of a chance to succeed following disappointing starts from the junior luge start position -- a unilateral decision made following Kumaritashvili's death -- and the result was a transformation from Erin Hamlin being the hottest American slider entering the Games into two days of frustration and misery.
The Americans also face the danger of allowing the altered starting location to provide a convenient crutch for more important issues. Certainly it is true that the sliders were forced to adjust to unforeseen conditions, and they were knocked off of their game, but it is equally true that the best American sliders did not adapt well to the changing circumstances and took themselves out of the competition. Currently the backbone of the women's team, Hamlin finished 16th. Her Olympic counterparts, Julia Clukey and Megan Sweeney, finished 17th and 22nd, respectively. Sweeney was appearing in her first Olympics.
"We definitely thought we would give a better showing," Hamlin said. "But what happened here definitely has me fired up moving forward."
The men, meanwhile, are in something of a transition. The best American finish, by Tony Benshoof, was eighth. He'll be 35 this year. Bengt Walden will be 37. The lead doubles team, Grimmette and Martin, finished 13th. Grimmette is 39, Martin 36. While the women's team has young sliders with potential, depth on the men's team is a primary concern.
The best female skeleton slider, Pikus-Pace, retired immediately following the Games. If there was an athlete on the U.S. team who exemplified competition and perspective, it was Pikus-Pace. She nearly medaled in her finale after overcoming a debilitating bobsled injury and will be missed on the team.
"It was the best race of my life. It's all been incredible. I was going for it. I was fourth going into that final run and I didn't want to finish there, so I knew I had to lay it all on the line," she said. "I let my sled fly a little more than I wanted to but it was a risk to get there, a risk that put me a tenth out of the medals, but it was a risk worth taking."
Her Olympic counterpart, Katie Uhlaender, however, went from gritty and feel-good to a polarizing presence after disappointing runs left her out of the top 10.
Earlier in the year, Uhlaender said she would offer no excuses for her performance. She had suffered the death of her father, former baseball player Ted Uhlaender. She had broken her knee and was not able to compete at 100 percent for much of 2009. Two days before opening ceremonies, Uhlaender was all confidence and bravado. "When I'm on my game," she said, "I think I can beat anyone in the world."
Then, after finishing 11th, Uhlaender was all parts venom. She blamed virtually everyone -- including her own federation and the conditions, calling the Olympic experience a "disaster" -- but herself, even though she, of course, is the only person who actually slides down the track.
"Honestly, this week was a complete disaster as far as organization and getting things done," she said. "I was up until four in the morning, trying to get video for the last day of training. We have issues with funding and support. We're a big team. There's bobsled, too. Not enough people to go around. I'll come back if we can get our stuff together. I want to say a different 'S' word.
"I shouldn't have been up until four in the morning before the last training day and then, hey, I broke my knee twice. I was playing catch-up the whole time and I did the best I could to get everything together but I guess it just wasn't enough time. But I put everything I had out there."
Uhlaender's little tirade sounds like an athlete frustrated by a poor performance, but it is more than that. With Pikus-Pace retiring, Uhlaender should be the leader of the women's skeleton team, the best hope for the U.S. team moving forward. But she proved herself, sources said, to be a polarizing force, even more so if she isn't posting big results.
Lund is 30 and said he does not want to predict the future, which is to say he isn't practicing his Russian for Sochi in 2014 but isn't quitting, either. He had earlier said just getting to the Olympics after being disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance -- which happened to be the hair-growth supplement Propecia -- was his version of a gold medal. Coming so close to a medal got him thinking much bigger.
"I'm happy and disappointed at the same time," Lund said. "It's been a hard, hard journey to get here, totally worth it. There were times I doubted, but it's completely worth it."
Meanwhile, Eric Bernotas finished 14th and John Daly, in his first Olympics, 17th.
Of course, much of the consternation around medaling will be silenced should U.S. bobsled land on the podium, if the two-man men can surprise, the Night Train crew follows up its top ranking with hardware, and Rohbock and Rzepka can do the same. For now, however, the feeling around the American sliders is one of frustration because the results in Vancouver were not what anyone had forecast.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
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