Australia’s First Winter Gold: Steven Bradbury Stands Tall and Wins Short Track Gold as All Others Tumble Around Him

Steven Bradbury wins gold_salt lake city
Steven Bradbury wins gold in Salt Lake City.

Short track skating: the number one critical success factor? Staying on your feet.

Surprise winner Steven Bradbury, gold medalist of the 1,000 meter short-track speed skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, is case in point number one.

Bradbury was a member of the Australian team that won the 5,000-meter relay team at the World Championships in Sydney in 1991, which was the first time that Australia had come out on top in a winter sport. Three years later at Lillehammer, he and his mates took bronze in the 5k relay.

His success did not continue. In the individual 500 and 1,000-meter short track events, Bradbury fell enough times to keep him out of the finals. In 1994, at the World Cup in Montreal, his right thigh was sliced open by the blade of another skater. Because his heart rate was pumping hard in the midst of competition, he lost a lot of blood very quickly. He stayed conscious, got help quickly as well as 111 stitches, and spent a year and a half getting back into world-class condition.

Crashes kept him off the medal podium at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and then tragedy struck again. In the midst of training, he broke his neck when he tipped dramatically over another skater, crashing head first into the wall.

And yet, Bradbury, with pins in his skull and screws and plates in his chest and back, managed to recover and prepare for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The recovery and participation of the native of Camden, New South Wales in the 2002 Games was improbable. So was his eventual gold-medal victory.

Steven Bradbury and his gold medalA grizzled 2-time Olympian at the age of 29, Bradbury embraced in Salt Lake City a strategy of least resistance: staying back and hoping that the younger, faster skaters in front of him took enough risks to get tangled up and crash. In the individual 1,000 meter short track event, Bradbury won his first heat without incident.

In the next round, he was up against American superstar, Apolo Anton Ohno, as well as a Japanese and a Canadian. Bradbury needed to finish in the top two to advance, but unfortunately, he ended up in third. And yet, fortune smiled on the Aussie, and Bradbury continued on to the semifinals thanks to a DQ to the Canadian, Marc Gagnon, who apparently obstructed another skater.

In the semis, Bradbury’s strategy paid off. Well in last place, Bradbury saw his competitors from South Korea, China and Canada crash in front of him, giving him an easy victory. In the finals, Bradbury maintained strategy and stayed well behind Ohno, Ahn Hyun-Soo of Korea, Li Jiajun of China and Mathieu Turcotte of Canada. As you can now guess, the American, the South Korean, the Chinese and the Canadian all took a tumble in the final lap, and Bradbury skated serenely past the finish line – Australian’s first ever Winter Olympic gold medalist.

“Everyone who was watching that race has to be turned on by the sport. Anything can happen out there,” Ohno said in a February 20, 2002 AP article after the finals.

Give the race a watch below. I suppose I’d have to agree!