Le May Doan cheers country with first gold

KEARNS, Utah -- Canadian speedskater Catriona Le May Doan crossed the finish line at the Olympic Oval on Thursday night, and immediately Mark Lowry jumped out of the stands and aimed his digital camera at his nation's first 2002 gold medalist.

"Boy," said Lowry, the Director of Sport for the Canadian Olympic Association, "we sure needed that one!"

And how.

It has been a crushing week for America's northern neighbor. On Monday -- as everyone not living under a rock or in a cave in Tora Bora knows -- Canadian pairs skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale got lassoed with a silver medal after a nearly flawless final performance.

"Clearly, there were judging errors," Lowry said Thursday. "The nation was incredibly discouraged. These athletes were not provided the result they should have gotten."

The next night, 500-meter medal favorite Jeremy Wotherspoon slipped at the opening gun of his long-track final. Wotherspoon left the Oval with a DNF.

"A big disappointment," Lowry said.

For good measure, Canada also came up empty in moguls and snowboarding. Only the slighted pair of Sale and Pelletier and 3,000-meter bronze medalist Cindy Klassen had reached the podium entering Thursday night's events.

"Overall, it's been disappointing," Four-time Olympian Gaetan Boucher said. "We've missed a few chances."

So a nation's hopes fell onto the massive shoulders of its flagbearer. Le May Doan, 31, won the 500-meter gold in Nagano and won bronze in the 1,000-meter final. She had broken the 500-meter world record eight times and had won 17 of 18 races at that distance. Quite simply, Le May Doan was the closest thing the Canadians had to a sure thing.

But Wednesday night, Le May Doan and the rest of her skittish nation got a shock when German Monique Garbrecht-Enfeldt came within 0.04 of her time in Race 1. Le May Doan usually outpaces all competitors by at least 0.2. After the race, she stomped by the press interview area with hardly a sound.

"I was just angry," she said. "I wanted to have that 0.2 gap."

Coming into the final, as all of North America gossiped about whether Sale and Pelletier would get mercy from the Olympic gods, speedskating experts forced optimism.

"She's gonna win," Boucher said.

She had to.

And she did. Le May Doan twitched just slightly in the ready position, and she did not come close to her world record of 37.22, but her time of 37.45 beat silver medalist Garbrecht-Enfeldt by 0.15. You could hear the sigh of relief from Manitoba to Mississauga. Le May Doan now can retire from the Olympics after Sunday's 1,000-meter final. She plans to race in the world championships next year in Calgary -- and start a family with husband and professional rodeo rider Bart Doan. Her nation, meanwhile, can get back to watching Skategate.

"I don't think one medal makes up for another one," she said. "It should have been two golds now."

But at least now the Canadians can face another Olympic day.

"I hope with this medal, people are re-encouraged," Le May Doan said. "We're just beginning a great competition."

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.