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Other than ordinary champion

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

Plenty people go through life with wrong-headed notions. The difference between Steven Bradbury and the rest of us is that he has a gold medal to show for his.

So much for the Olympic motto of ''Swifter, Higher, Stronger.''

Because Bradbury's is ''hang around and wait for a crash.''

And after the way the 28-year-old Australian won the most improbable of golds in the 1,000-meter short track speedskating final, who's going to say which is better?

Midway through the last lap of Saturday night's race, the only guy trailing Bradbury with 50 meters to go was the Zamboni driver.

That was by design.

He had made it through the quarterfinals because the two skaters ahead of him crashed. By the time he started the semifinal, his legs were shot. This time, Bradbury was praying for a crash. He got through instead because the skater ahead of him was disqualified.

Rather than wrack his brain devising a new strategy the night before the final, Bradbury decided to make productive use of his time.

He was so sure that Apolo Anton Ohno would win, that he dashed off an e-mail to the American cover boy asking him to plug the speedskating boots he was wearing on the medals stand. That's because Bradbury had manufactured them. Then he put his head on a pillow and said one final prayer.

''I was just hoping,'' Bradbury recalled Sunday, ''for another accident or a collision.''

For most of the race, he looked exactly like what he was -- a slacker. Up ahead, leading a pack of four skaters into the final corner was Ohno, about to deliver the first of an expected four golds. Just outside of Ohno was China's Li Jiajun. On their heels were Korean Ahn Hyun-soo and Canadian Mathieu Turcotte.

One moment, all Bradbury could see were flashing blades, jostling skaters and elbows flying at acute angles. In the next moment, miraculously, the thicket of bodies parted like the Red Sea.

''I can't recall a race where four guys went down together,'' he said. ''It doesn't happen every day.''

Some athletes' struggles are worth celebrating as much as their victories. Bradbury's story is one of those, an overnight sensation that was a dozen years in the making.

Along the way, he was impaled on a skate blade in one race -- a wound that required 111 stitches to close -- and broke his neck in another. And yet, somehow, he always found a way to hang around.

Bradbury was a promising 20-year-old and a gold-medal contender in the 1,000 at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. He got wiped out in a first-round crash. His consolation was a bronze in the 5,000-meter relay, Australia's first Winter Games medal of any kind.

Four years later, there wasn't even that much. In Nagano, he finished 19th in the 500, 21st in the 1,000, and the Aussies finished eighth and last in the 5,000 relay. But Bradbury still couldn't let go.

He went back home to Brisbane and started making the speedskating boots in the garage of his parents' home. He used what little money it generated to supplement the stipend he received from the Australian Olympic Committee -- about $10,000 annually in U.S. dollars -- and moved into their basement to save money.

He trained at the ice rink they worked at and came here with modest ambitions. John and Rhonda Bradbury came along for once, too. The Bradburys might be Australia's first family of short track speedskating, but in a country with one winter resort to speak of that doesn't translate into much.

John was the national champion almost 40 years ago, and his younger son, Warren, was on the Aussie team from 1995-97. But the family still had to scrimp and save for 18 months to make the trip.

''Whatever happens,'' Rhonda said, ''at least this time I'm going to be here to see it.''

She almost didn't. The only tickets the Bradburys could afford stuck them in the next-to-last row of seats in the arena.

Seconds after their son crossed the line with Australia's first-ever Winter Games gold, his countrymen burst into celebration. John and Rhonda tried calling Warren in Canada, but by the time they got through, a friend answered and said he was already on his way to the bar.

Fate jumps up and plants a golden kiss on your cheek only once in a lifetime -- if you're lucky. Bradbury's Olympic moment was the best of these games precisely because it came when no one had a right to expect it.

''Sometimes it's a very cruel sport. Sometimes,'' he said, ''it's a sport you smile a lot about.'

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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