SOCHI, Russia -- The oddest thing happened following an Olympic speedskating event here Friday night: An American celebrated.
Four of them in fact. After winning silver in the men's 5,000-meter relay, Eddy Alvarez, J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling and Jordan Malone grabbed an American flag and paraded around Iceberg Arena with massive smiles draped across their faces.
It had taken almost two weeks -- thirteen days to be exact -- for any of the 25-member American speedskating team to medal. And it finally happened on their last chance. Afterwards, the Americans, well, let's just let Alvarez explain.
"Just to pull through is an unbelievable feeling," he said. "It's such a relief. I literally feel like I just came out of a spa."
OK, then. The win was in no way a surprise. The Americans were the No. 1 ranked team in the world entering the race. But still, the way this Olympics has gone for both the short and long track teams, anything was possible.
Earlier Friday, the day was setting up as another speedskating medal disappointment. Jessica Smith finished fourth in the women's 1,000 meters. Celski finished sixth in the 500 meters. Next in store at Adler Arena, both the men's and women's long track teams failed to advance in the Team Pursuit. It all meant that the weight of the entire speedskating team rested on the shoulders of these four American men. Before they took the ice, they talked about just that.
"Our coach told us he was tired of seeing other countries celebrate out there," Creveling said. "I told the guys we are not going to let skating walk away without a medal."
The Americans were helped right from the start, when both the Dutch and Chinese crashed in the first turn, making it a two-team race between the United States and Russia. The two teams traded leads back and forth until the Russians took over with seven laps to go and never looked back. Powering the Russian train was naturalized citizen Victor An, who single-handedly outmedaled the Americans 4-1. An's three golds and bronze in the four short track events gives him eight in his career, tying the record of American Apolo Anton Ohno.
An, a former rival of Ohno's, skated for South Korea in 2006. After missing the 2010 Games with an injury and enduring a falling out with the South Korean skating federation, he became a naturalized citizen of Russia and skated for the Russians here in Sochi.
Friday night, he was a rock star, with the partisan Iceberg Arena crowd roaring every time he was on the ice. South Korean president Park Geun-hye reportedly launched an investigation this week into how one of their natural treasures was allowed to leave home.
"To lose to a guy like Hyun-So or Viktor An in this case -- sorry -- it's as good of a loss as you can have," Creveling said. "It's a true loss in every sense of the word. He's just amazing to watch skate and amazing to skate against."
Following the race and the flower ceremony, Creveling was nearly overcome with emotion in a brief post-race chat with reporters.
"The fact that I'm just able to be here for my country, for my family, for my team, I feel so much honor and pride," he said. "And the fact that I'm bringing home a medal ... it's wonderful."
The race brought to its end a tumultuous two weeks for U.S. Speedskating, highlighted by disappointing performances on almost every day. From the "Suitgate" controversy with Under Armor to coaches criticizing the pre-Sochi preparations, the team was consistently in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Now it's finally over. And it's a chance to regroup. Creveling is optimistic about the future.
"I don't think this is anything but an opportunity, not a failure," he said. "You have to take the word failure out of your dictionary. There is more than one way to the top of a mountain. U.S. Speedskating needs to find a different way now. I have 100 percent faith that we'll do that and we'll come back four years from now much stronger than we are."