John F. Russell: Missing your shot at Olympic glory
Steamboat Springs — On Sunday, my heart sank as American cyclist Mara Abbott made her way to the finish line of the women’s cycling road race at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
She was within 500 meters of a goal she had been working for her entire life, and she was so close to the Olympic gold medal, I’m sure she could feel the weight of the medal hanging around her neck. But in a matter of seconds, the gold medal she desired, and any chance at a silver or bronze, raced past her faster than a sudden gust of wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean.
Television viewers could see it coming long before Abbott, but in the blink of an eye, the gold medal she had dreamed of winning vanished.
Lost in the blur that streaked by her was an amazing 2,000-foot climb to the top of Vista Chinesa; a white-knuckled descent to the final flat section, where Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten crashed; and a desperate attempt to hold off the pack of riders that would eventually overtake her.
On Sunday, Abbott’s story became page-one news for the American athlete, but she is not alone. Several athletes in Steamboat Springs can relate to just missing out on Olympic glory. They know and understand what it feels like to finish fourth — possibly the worst finish on the Olympic stage.
In 2002, I realized just how devastating placing fourth at the Olympics can be while covering the U.S. Nordic combined ski team in Salt Lake City. That year, Todd Lodwick, Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane and Matt Dayton were on the verge of a storybook ending that had been building for years. On the final day of team event, the Americans were poised to make history by becoming the first American athletes to win a medal in Nordic combined. Even better, they were at home, with a large and enthusiastic crowd ready to cheer them on to victory.
But it wasn’t to be.
The normally strong cross country skiers seemed to be racing uphill all day, their skis slower than the rest of the field and their Olympic dreams fading further with every lap. The team tried, but at the end of the race, they crossed the finish line in fourth place. It was a disappointing end to their Olympic quest, and the hangover was hard to overcome.
But they were lucky.
Many athletes never get a second chance, but three of the four returned in 2010 and raced to a silver medal in Whistler. There was no question the finish, and the celebration that followed, was due, in part, to the team’s experience in Salt Lake City.
On the other side are athletes such as Steamboat’s Annie Kakela. She was a rower with the women’s 8 boat at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
The American team had been favored headed into the games, but ended up placing fourth in the final race behind gold medal winners Romania, silver medal winners Canada and bronze medal winners Belarus.
While Kakela has plenty of hardware from her days of rowing, including a gold medal from the World Championships, she will tell you that the disappointment of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta is something that never really fades.
She stayed involved with rowing for years after her competitive days were over, helping pave the road for future success, but she acknowledges she will never forget the emotions that came from placing fourth at the Olympic Games. She said she will always treasure the memories of competing at those games and always wonder what it would have been like to earn a medal.
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