SALT LAKE CITY -- As soon as his face went up on the screen, Apolo Anton Ohno had the crowd. With three laps to go, he had the race.
Storming up through the line, the Seattle teen rocketed in from fourth to second. Then, he put the hammer down and began pulling away.
But not far enough.
After Canadian Mathieu Turcotte slipped and fell away from the race, the remaining racers locked down for a desperate scramble for a last-tenth-of-a-second lead change.
Firing into the final turn, China's Li JiaJun slipped, sliding into Ahn Hyun-Soo, the youngest member of the South Korean team at only 16. Ahn wrapped his arm around Ohno's legs to gain some traction, but only succeeded in taking out both himself and Ohno mere meters from what would have been Ohno's first gold medal. Within the blink of an eye, three competitors, including Ohno, were sliding into the walls.
Meanwhile, Aussie Steven Bradbury couldn't believe his fortune. The sea of elbows and skates had parted, the ice was empty and the path to gold had been miraculously cleared. As Bradbury crossed the finish line, Ohno picked himself off the ice, reaching for the line. With a gash in his inner left thigh that required six stitches, he stumbled again, but managed to push his leg across for the silver.
A thunderous "BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" rained down from the rafters. Women covered their mouths in disbelief.
"That's short track," said the PA announcer. "Thrills and spills, ladies and gentlemen." He sounded like a weary three-ring circus leader trying to calm down angry throngs of ticket-holders after his bevy of clowns were stampeded by elephants ... who were then knocked out by falling tightrope walkers ... while the tent caved in.
Even though, of course, he was right. Ohno's teammate Rusty Smith calls it "NASCAR on ice."
"Let's give all of the skaters a round of applause," the PA announcer implored. Hilariously, the smattering of claps were roundly drowned out by the jeers.
In the midst of all the shock and disgust, Bradbury kept circling the ice, wearing the look of a child on Christmas. He had been blessed with not one, but two rounds of sheer dumb luck. In the semis, he also was far behind the leaders, but survived a crash 10 meters before the finish line.
Now he had won his country's first-ever Winter Olympic gold medal. He skated numbly around the oval to foundation-rumbling boos. He konked himself lightly in the head with his fist, as if he was checking to make sure he was awake. Then he looked up and pointed at two Aussie journalists who were up out of their seats, cheering him on.
Later, as he sang his national anthem during the medal ceremony, Bradbury couldn't wipe the smirk off his face.
"What a story we've got," one Aussie reporter exclaimed to his fellow writers as they waited for Bradbury in the mixed zone.
"Our first Winter gold medal ever?" another replied, sucking in a laugh.
"We're working with the French judge," joked another.
The race to the mixed zone was just as much of a knock-down, drag-out roller derby, with stunned writers flying from all corners trying to find out what happened. Ohno himself was in a daze. All he could say was, "I skated the race of my life, and I got silver."
Despite the continuous booing by the American-heavy crowd, Bradbury's gold seemed oh-so-appropriate, especially after the Aussies' best hope for gold, freestyle aerialist Jacqui Cooper, had been just as abruptly taken out of competition. By equally dumb luck, Cooper, the three-time world champ, had ripped her left knee to shreds Monday after bouncing hard off the landing in training. Once that happened, the Aussies' chances to rectify years of wintry futility seemed to vanish without a trace.
That is, until all of Steven Bradbury's rivals conveniently disappeared for him.
Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.