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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Gold, silver, bronze? Sometimes medals don’t tell the whole story

  • Noelle Pikus-Pace of the United States starts her final run during the women's skeleton competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Pikus-Pace won the silver medal. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

    Noelle Pikus-Pace of the United States starts her final run during the women's skeleton competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Pikus-Pace won the silver medal. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

    Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

    Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

    Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

    Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

  • Noelle Pikus-Pace of the United States starts her final run during the women's skeleton competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Pikus-Pace won the silver medal. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.
  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.
  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.
  • Photo illustration. Left to right: skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (waving and on skeleton sled), Jeremy Abbott (figure skater, arms upraised and fallen during performance), skeleton racer Noel Pikus-Pace (waving) and Evgeni Plushenko.

Sometimes, Olympians don’t need a space on the medal podium to win.

Sometimes, they can crash-land and slide into a padded wall, tiny ice particles sprinkling overhead, then lie there still, causing us to wonder about their minds and muscles, and then, with the world watching, rise up, finish their routine and skate away triumphantly.

Fifteenth on the judges’ cards.

First in my book.

This was American figure skater Jeremy Abbott’s story Thursday night at the Sochi Winter Games, during the men’s short program. It’s why I love the Olympics.

Some say Abbott choked under pressure.

I say he got tough under pressure.

To me, he’s another Miracle on Ice, following the 1980 United States men’s Olympic hockey team.

“I’m not in the least bit ashamed,” Abbott said after completing the program without a further flaw. “I stood up and I finished that program, and I’m proud of my effort and I’m proud of what I did under the circumstances.”

What he did was win, without winning a medal.

Olympians inspire on the ice and snow, and they inspire with backstories that place a spotlight on sacrifice and pain.

We have our own version of this sort of grit, and her name is Tara Mounsey. She played hockey with the boys at Concord High School in the mid-1990s and suffered a pair of serious knee injuries – one in high school, a second in college.

But Mounsey strengthened her knee and returned to help the women’s Olympic hockey team win gold at the Nagano Winter Games, as well as silver four years later in Salt Lake City.

She did it out of love for the sport.

And nothing else.

These are the snippets we don’t see; the days and months and years in the gym, rehabbing mind, body and spirit, like Mounsey did.

I don’t know much about the sport called skeleton, but a pair of Americans grabbed my attention during Thursday night’s broadcast as they raced headfirst on a sled the size of a cafeteria tray, at 80 mph.

Start with Katie Uhlaender.

Her father, Ted, played major league baseball for the Twins, Indians and Reds in the 1960s and ’70s. He died in 2009 of a heart problem related to cancer, leaving Uhlaender without a major piece of her inspirational foundation.

And she’s suffered physical pain, too: broken foot, torn ACL and MCL, broken kneecap, concussion.

Yesterday, though, with her father’s baseball card and his National League Championship Series ring and a sprinkle of his ashes in her possession, Uhlaender finished fourth in the final standings.

And then there’s Noelle Pikus-Pace.

Pikus-Pace suffered a broken leg when a four-man bobsled lost control and slammed into her, spoiling her shot at the 2006 Olympics.

She placed fourth in the Games four years ago, but retired because being an Olympian meant training a lot and separation from her kids, five months per year.

Then, in 2012, she had a miscarriage at 18 weeks. “The baby’s heart stopped,” Pikus-Pace said in a taped interview during Thursday’s broadcast. “They couldn’t tell me why.”

So she un-retired, packed up her family and returned to the Olympics, gaining an ironic sort of strength after losing her child.

“It’s the perfect storm,” she said. “My husband and kids wait for me at the finish line.”

They were waiting there yesterday, when Pikus-Pace crossed to win the silver medal.

She cried afterward and said, “It was worth the wait. It was worth every minute of it.”

Not all Olympic stories have fairy-tale endings, of course.

Russian figure skating champion Evgeni Plushenko, a two-time gold medalist and rock star in his homeland, pulled up his shirt before Thursday’s short program, exposing a 5-inch scar on his lower back that looked like a centipede.

Then, during warm-ups, he twirled in the air and landed, the impact to his lower back, with its five screws after surgery, all the more powerful after seeing that centipede.

Plushenko placed his hands on his knees, leaned on the padded wall and said to an official, “Not able to skate.”

And with that, he retired.

“I almost cried there,” he said in a TV interview afterward. “This is the end of my career. I’m not robot. I tried my best.”

No, they are not robots. They are athletes, one turn of the ankle or knee from disaster.

Abbott, though, made the best of it.

His landing seconds into his routine was violent. His medal hopes were gone. The media’s choke label, given to him earlier, would follow him.

What would you have done?

Me? I’d like to think I would have carried on. More likely, I would have gone to the locker room and cried like Nancy Kerrigan after she got whacked on the knee 20 years ago.

Not Abbott. Alone in front of the world, with no teammates to lean on, he nailed a few triple jumps and swept across the ice to the rhythmic claps of a supportive crowd.

He kept his poise, maintained his dignity and exhibited a spirit that represented what these games are all about.

Later, he told reporters what had gone through his mind after he fell:

“I don’t care if I’m two minutes late. I don’t care what happens with the rest of this. I’m not going to give up this moment.”

So he didn’t.

He struck gold, instead.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@ cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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