Twist of fate makes Bradbury an instant celebrity

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Steven Bradbury didn't come to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games with a realistic chance of winning a gold medal.

He did, however, foresee the possibility of a golden business opportunity.

An Australian whose g'day job is designing racing boots and skates, Bradbury sent an email to his most prominent client, American short track speed skater Apolo Ohno, asking him to remember his friends who helped him get to the top.

"I just asked him if, when he got his gold medal, he could give us a mention,'' Bradbury said with a wry grin. "But I guess I don't have to do that now.''

Not after one of the strangest finishes to any non-figure skating event in recent Olympics memory put Bradbury in the somewhat awkward position of being able to generate his own free advertising.

Running dead last in a tight pack of five skaters heading into the final turn of the men's 1,000 meter final Saturday night at the Delta Center, Bradbury saw his other four competitors take each other out, leaving him the last man standing with an open path to the finish line and the gold medal he never dreamed of winning.

"I saw them all go down and I said, 'Hang on, this can't be right. I just won,' " a somewhat embarrassed Bradbury said afterward.

Somebody call Bud Greenspan, the longtime chronicler of the Olympics. Get Jim McKay in here for some historical perspective. Producers for Leno and Letterman are holding on lines 2 and 3. Line 1 is the Australian president, anxious to congratulate the first Aussie to strike gold in the Winter Games.

In one quick, freakish twist of fate, Steven Bradbury became the shining star of these Olympics, temporarily stealing the spotlight from Canadian skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

They were victims, after all, and they played their role to the hilt. Bradbury, on the other hand, is a lucky survivor, a role he's playing like Olivier did Hamlet.

With his spiked, streaked blond hair and his "Man, can you believe what just happened to me!" approach to the full house dealt to him, Bradbury became an immediate media sensation.

What's not to like about the guy? He knew he didn't belong on the top step of the award podium. But what's a bloke to do? Give back the gold? Call for an IOC investigation? Start a national campaign on NBC to have Ohno elevated ahead of him?

None of that will happen, of course, so Bradbury did everything he could to make the best of a difficult situation.

"Obviously, I wasn't the fastest racer out there. I was just riding in the back hoping for a collision or accident,'' he joked. "Those were my tactics, and they worked like a charm.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic that I won the gold medal,'' he added, "but I also have mixed feelings about how I won the race.''

It was a great strategy, obviously, to wait for Ohno and China's Li Jiajun to exchange pushes heading into the final turn. Jiajun was sent sliding into the padded sideboards. One down, three to go.

Then, coming out of the final turn, the finish line just 15 meters away, Korea's Hyun-Soo Ahn tried to take Ohno on the inside. Like a NASCAR driver in the final turn at Daytona, Ohno dropped low to cut him off. Ahn stuck out an arm to ward off the American. In football, it would have been a bad attempt at an arm tackle. But on ice, at high speeds, it took Ohno out as effectively as a clip.

Ohno went down. Ahn went over him and took out Canada's Mattieu Turcotte, and Bradbury couldn't believe his good fortune.

They have a saying in NASCAR, CART, Formula One and all other forms of automotive mayhem. That's racing, they shrug when bad stuff happens.

Turns out they say the same thing in short-track speed skating.

"This is short track,'' Ohno said with a shrug. "It was out of my control. Maybe next time I need to be a little further out front.''

But here's the thing. If he couldn't win the race himself, if he was to be denied in his bid for four golds, Apolo Ohno said he was glad it was Steven Bradbury who beat him in a surreal, bumper-cars finish.

"This is a wonderful time for Steven, and I'm happy for him,'' said Ohno, who walked into the interview room on crutches after needing six stitches to close a cut on his inner thigh. "It's just ironic that (Friday night) he asked me to give a shout-out to RBC (Bradbury's skate company).''

At the age of 19, Ohno -- who said he expects to be back on the ice in time for his next race Wednesday -- will get other chances, both at these Olympics and others. The prospect of not winning four golds slipped easily off the young man's shoulders.

"My quest was never about winning four golds,'' he said. "It was about coming to the Olympics and experiencing things and performing my best, regardless of the medal outcome.''

Bradbury, however, is 28. "And short-track is a young man's game,'' he noted. "I figure my wash is done.''

This is a man, you should know, who gashed himself in a 1994 accident and lost four of his six liters of blood. In 2000, in another accident, he broke the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae in his neck. He finally struck gold in his fourth Olympiad, the one he never expected to win, after being taken out in the 1992 Lillehammer Games when he was a viable contender.

What goes around, comes around. Especially in short-track.

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