Hello friends. The bad news this week is that I’m being mauled by some kind of stomach bug/flu. I don’t think it’s COVID, though I had a test on Monday to be safe…which will return results in 6-10 days, just enough time to likely be completely useless to me one way or another. Since Saturday, it’s been a miserable stretch of catching sleep at odd hours, soaking in a hot shower to combat the chills, and chugging Pepto Bismol to try to mitigate the sharp stomach pains. Which is more than you needed to know, but if the content seems a little scant this week, that’s why. Basically, the most my body and brain can tolerate is reading Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, which I finished last night, and everything else is forced.
So I thought today I’d do a quick one that might be worth a longer podcast treatment in the future. It’s the story of Australia’s first winter Olympics gold medal (today, they have five). It’s a story of, um…perseverance. It’s the story of doing a Bradbury.
Steven Bradbury was a short track speed skater, and, it has to be said, a good one. He won a world championship gold medal in 1991 as part of Australia’s 5000m relay team, and in 1994, in the same event, was part of the team that won the country’s first ever winter Olympic medal period, a bronze. In that event final, the Australians decided to play very conservative, especially after the Canadians crashed out. Rather than fighting the Americans for silver, the anchor racer simply stayed on his feet—lots of people crash in this sport—in order to pick up the medal.
Bradbury had picked up the sport from his father, the country’s former speed skating national champion, and was considered a prospect for individual medals. (How the hell his father got into the sport, in a country without much ice, is more research than my flu-riddled body can sustain…for now.) He had bad luck in 1994, though, failing to make a final, and his career in the next decade was hampered by two major injuries, including a broken neck and a crash in which his thigh was sliced by an opponent’s skates, leading to the loss of a near-fatal amount of blood and requiring more than 100 stitches.
By the time he came to Salt Lake City in 2002, he was still only in his late 20s, but very much past his competitive prime. He was not expected to come near a medal, and in three of his four events, he didn’t. But in the 1,000m event, some strange fate was brewing.
He made it through his opening heat with an unremarkable time, but in the quarterfinals, he had to face two of the greatest racers in the sport in Canada’s Marc Gagnon and America’s Apolo Anton Ohno. Not surprisingly, Bradbury finished third of four, which meant elimination. Except, in this case, it didn’t—the Canadian racer was disqualified for pushing, and Bradbury went through on a technicality.
Things got even harder in the semifinals, where he met Li Jiajun, who at that point had won 10 world championship gold medals, Mathieu Turcotte, an Olympic gold medalist, and Kim Dong-Sung, another Olympic gold medalist. Bradbury was more than a little out of his league, especially at this stage of his career. But this is where things started to get funny. Watch the critical moment of the race, starting at the 3-minute mark here:
As you see, two consecutive falls eliminated three racers, and Bradbury, who had been hanging around the back, knowing he couldn’t hang with the big dogs and expressly hoping for something like this, cruised into second place and qualified for the finals. (Worth noting that the quarterfinals onward all happened on the same day.)
There, he faced Ohno yet again, along with six-time world champion and three-time gold medalist Viktor Ahn (who would win three more in 2014 and become the all-time gold medal leader in his sport). Bradbury was, by a good measure, the fifth-best skater in this final heat of five athletes, and when the final lap began, he was considerably behind. What happened next…well, at this point you can probably guess, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch:
To me, it doesn’t get much funnier or more appropriate than this. Only in a sport as chaotic as short track could Bradbury have done what he did with such a large skill gap, but all credit to him for, I guess, being there. For coming through two awful injuries, for not quitting, for coming back and coming back until that day of days when he was blessed by luck in a way that few others have been.
It spawned a phrase in Australia, “doing a Bradbury,” which either means winning through sheer presence or lurking around and taking a big prize by default, depending on how charitable your interpretation. Either way, Australia’s first Olympic winter gold was unforgettable.