Younger squad lands U.S. on podium
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- If you had to make a parallel to the familiar, Erin Pac is the anti-Lindsey Vonn. She doesn't talk about her injuries, about what hurts or when she hurt it, or if and how it affected her performance. She replaces those answers with a short smile that says, in effect, "Change the subject."
But when few people were around and the pain of a sore hamstring jackknifed through the back of her leg, the tough exterior crumbled and Pac began crying. It was earlier in the week, at the beginning of practice runs, before Pac and her teammate Elana Meyers won the bronze medal Wednesday night in the women's bobsled competition.
"It hurts a lot. It's fine," Pac said.
To follow the predictions, Team USA was always supposed to win a medal in women's bobsled -- the sport has been an Olympic event since the 2002 Games and the Americans won gold in Salt Lake City and silver in 2006 in Torino -- but the USA I team of Shauna Rohbock and Michelle Rzepka were the ones expected to be standing on the podium. Pac and Meyers were considered good enough to fight, good enough to be competitive, but not quite good enough to beat the powerful German team or their more decorated teammates.
"It's not going to change me. It's not going to change Elana," Pac said. "We're still the same people. We're just a little bit happier."
On a night of fast, unpredictable, passionate and brutal racing, not only did Pac and Meyers medal, but Bree Schaaf and Emily Azevedo -- the upstart, just happy-to-be-there kids manning USA III -- finished fifth, higher than America's top sled in sixth. Team Canada won the gold and silver.
With one event remaining -- the men's four-man bobsled Friday and Saturday -- the bronze represents the first medal of the Vancouver Olympics for the Americans in a sliding sport. For the majority of these Games, the Americans have been vexed by the course and frustrated by both politics and results. The Americans were disappointed in all three luge disciplines (largely because of the unilateral change Olympic officials made to the course following the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili) and missed the podium without controversy in skeleton and two-man bobsled.
Reaching its final stages, Wednesday's competition grew fierce.
Sensing a medal, the competitors increased their urgency and pushed hard down a notoriously fast track. The Germany II sled, piloted by top driver Cathleen Martini, crashed frighteningly coming out of the final turns. Martini skidded upside down for a long stretch of the track, while her brakeman Romy Logsch, was ejected from the back of the sled and careened along the ice. Great Britain's top sled crashed during the third heat.
The Canadians, particularly the Team Canada I sled of Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, were astonishingly setting track records during each run except for the final run. The gold medal remained in their grasp because they seemed to push the limits of the track with each run. Canada I bested its score on each successive run going into the final. It was something that reignited the American complaint that the Canadians' thirst to medal in these Games led to a more dangerous track.
In order to create a great home-field advantage on what is considered the fastest track in the world, the Canadians limited the number of practice runs for foreign competitors to roughly 40, while Canadian sliders took between 150 and 160 practice runs on the track.
"I think it's huge. I think it helped with the confidence. The brakemen know [how] far to push. We knew every corner. I know the corners. I can close my eyes and I can picture them perfectly in my brain," Canada II driver Helen Upperton said. "I've gone wrong and right into all of them multiple times.
"The sliding sports is probably the biggest home-track advantage because the venue is so different, and these guys took so much flak for the venue when everyone showed up; a lot of the pilots love sliding here. We do this because we're crazy. We want to go as fast as possible, and this is a track that helps you go as fast as possible."
It was an advantage that created controversy following Kumaritashvili's death, and proved to be a critical advantage for the Canadians on this night.
"I think the benefit to the home-track advantage wasn't necessarily so that I could come out and put down the runs and I knew it was going to happen. It just made it easier," Humphries said. "The track is every difficult and the track has started on a rough foot. It's a difficult track, it's a fast track, and unfortunately with the luge athlete and with all the bobsled crashes we had with the men's races at the start of the week, I think it got into people's heads a little bit. Having the home-track advantage helped with that, knowing that as soon as I took my first run down I knew what I was doing. It just gave me the confidence as a pilot to focus."
But still, the Canadians beat the field, including the formidable Germans. For Rohbock, the end was a disappointment. She had struggled with the corners and was never a factor.
"I thought I had good tops, but just like yesterday after viewing the video, I didn't have great runs at the top and I just wasn't picking up any speed," Rohbock said. "I didn't put together the runs to be on the podium, anyway. It wasn't the Olympics I envisioned for the last four years, but the U.S. got a medal, and that's all I want to see, us on the medal stand."
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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