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Sure-footed champion of underdogs

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 18, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Call off the search. Do not pay the ransom.

The Olympics have been found. Turns out, they are safe and healthy.

They had been lost, you know. There for a while, in the snarl of controversy and commercialism, the magic that is the Olympics was misplaced. There for a while, something was missing.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, in the astonished eyes of Steven Bradbury, we found them again.

This is your Olympic moment. This is the reason we watch these strangers play strange sports. Because it is possible for an athlete to skate around a couple of decades without giving us any reason to know his name, and the next moment he is trying to explain the gold medal hanging around his neck.

It probably took you by surprise that Bradbury came from nowhere -- turns out, it's close to Brisbane -- to win the 1,000-meters in short-track speed skating. Frankly, it shocked the dickens out of him, too.

One moment Bradbury was out for a moonlight skate, watching every skater disappear into the distance, and the next he was the last man standing, and an odd little notion began to noodle in his brain.

"My God," he thought. "I think I won."

This is what you get. You hang around long enough, you sweat enough and bleed enough and skate enough, and one night, everybody else falls down. You look around, certain there will be a re-race, and they march you up to a platform and hang a lump of gold around your neck. You exchange barbs with a heckler who suggests you shouldn't have won, and your national anthem begins to play, and you have no idea of the words you are supposed to sing.

By the time you figure out what happened, all are hailing Steven Bradbury.

Gold medalist.

"I don't know what happened," Bradbury said. "It was like, 'Hang on, this can't be right.' "

And that's the beauty of it, the dazzling, wondrous beauty. The race isn't always to the swift. You hear a lot about Citius and all a lot Altius and a little about Fortius, but sometimes, there is also something to be said for Erectus. There is something to be said for overreaching your goals.

Australia had never won gold in the Winter Olympics before Bradbury's and had only won two medals of any color. No wonder. At the moment Bradbury won, it was 104 degrees in Brisbane. There was no word on the wind-chill factor.

But the charm of this story isn't that Bradbury won. It's that the complete goofiness of the result wasn't lost on him. He knows he was the fifth-best skater in a five-team field. He is, after all, a stand-up guy.

"It's freakish," Bradbury said. "I was probably the weakest guy in the field. I'm obviously not the fastest skater. I'm not the most deserving guy. I had mixed emotions when I crossed the finish line, but I'll take it."

Of course he will. He has spent a career looking at other people's backs. He has been to three previous Olympics, not that anyone noticed. He was 21st in the 1,000 in Nagano, 24th in Lillehammer. He was part of a bronze-medal winning relay team in Lillehammer, but no one confused him with Dan Jansen.

If you knew anything about Bradbury's skating, you might conclude he isn't very good at it.

For example, there was the grisly accident at the '94 World Championships in Montreal when a rival's skate became embedded in Bradbury's right leg. It took 111 stitches to repair, and Bradbury lost four liters of the six liters of blood in his body.

"I knew I was in a very bad way," he said. "I wouldn't let myself lose consciousness, because I thought I was going to die."

As Bradbury tells the story, another question comes.

"Uh, Steve. Didn't you also break your neck?"

Why, yes. He did. That was two years ago, when he slid headfirst into the barrier and shattered two vertebrae. You can still see the scars where they screwed the halo into his head.

Why continue?

Why, for nights such as this one that turn out better than you dared to dream.

You want to talk about your Miracles on Ice? Try this one. An Olympian may never have won more with less. It was like winning the Kentucky Derby with a goat.

The entire day stacked up like one grand conspiracy to allow Bradbury to win. In his quarterfinal race, he finished third, meaning he would not advance. But wait. Four-time World Cup champion Marc Gagnon was disqualified. Bradbury advanced.

Then, in the semis, Bradbury again was skating behind the pack when there was a collision and two skaters went down. Jeepers. Bradbury was in the finals.

Then he was fifth, a quarter of a lap behind. Strategy, you see. He was hoping against hope two skaters would tumble and he would flash in for the bronze. Instead, every other competitor fell down. Every. Other. Competitor.

Quick. Everyone hum the theme to Chariots of Fire.

"Some days, God smiles on you," Bradbury said, still a little embarrassed by what happened. "I'm not looking at this as something won over a minute and a half race, but as a reward for all the work I've put in."

There is something to that. This was a win for everyone else in the team picture whose name you can't remember. This was for all the athletes in the fringe of their sport. This was for everyone toasting Bradbury into the night at an aptly named bar called The Last Lap.

You know how unexpected this was? The closest Bradbury figured to getting on the medal stand was Apolo Anton Ohno's skates. To supplement the $20,000 a year Bradbury gets from the government, he makes skating boots. The night before the race, Bradbury e-mailed Ohno, king of the rink, to ask if Ohno could plug his company if he won gold.

Think about it.

The race was won by the Emperor's Footman.

How cool is that?

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