Steven Bradbury, Australia’s last man standing
The first man to cross the line following a pile-up in the 1,000m short-track speed skating final at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, Australia’s Steven Bradbury recorded a memorable victory that guaranteed him a place in Olympic history.
The five-man field for the men’s 1,000m short track speed skating final at Salt Lake City 2002 was high on quality. Lining up were the Republic of Korea’s Ahn Hyun-Soo (who would later change his name to Viktor An and represent Russia with distinction at Sochi 2014), American challenger Apolo Anton Ohno, Nagano 1998 silver medallist Li Jiajun of China, and the formidable Mathieu Turcotte of Canada, who were all expected to battle it out for gold. Then there was the fifth member of the quintet, Australian outsider Steven Bradbury…
Against the oddsThough Bradbury could only finish third in his quarter-final, he was handed a place in the semis after Canada’s Marc Gagnon was disqualified for pushing. Mindful that he lacked the pace of his rivals, Bradbury chose to sit at the back of the field in his semi-final race and keep out of trouble, a tactic agreed on with his coach Ann Zhang and designed to allow him to capitalise should the skaters ahead of him hit the ice. The plan worked to perfection as two of his rivals fell and another was disqualified, allowing the canny Australian to win through to the final.
In the battle for the medals, Bradbury again allowed his more-fancied rivals to pull clear. “I was quite far behind the other four guys with two laps to go,” he recalled, setting the scene for what was a dramatic denouement. Attempting to pass Ohno on the outside, Li was the first to fall. Off balance as a result, the American then clipped Ahn and Turcotte, with all three hitting the deck. The last man standing, Bradbury skated past his stricken rivals to clinch the unlikeliest of gold medals.
“There was complete chaos, and everybody fell down,” said the Australian, who greeted victory with admirable modesty. “Given the way I won the race, I wasn’t going to be the guy who went around pumping my fists. I just put my arms up in disbelief.”
Australia’s first Winter Games goldThe winner of Australia’s first-ever gold at the Olympic Winter Games, Bradbury became an instant hero back home. A few days later, Alisa Camplin drew inspiration from her compatriot’s unlikely achievement to secure a freestyle skiing gold that only added to the sense of elation Down Under.
Bradbury, who was skating in his fourth Games in Utah, was no stranger to Olympic breakthroughs. He was a member of the team that landed a bronze in the 5,000m relay at Lillehammer 1994, Australia’s very first Winter Games medal. From 2006 onwards, many Australian athletes would follow his example, competing mainly in freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Having become a household name overnight, Bradbury chose to retire from speed skating after his exploits in Salt Lake City, just as the Australian postal service was issuing a stamp of him in celebration. He subsequently commentated on the Olympic Winter Games Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 for Australian television, and appeared on the entertainment show “Dancing with the Stars”. Further recognition came his way in 2007, when he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia and inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. In search of the thrills he had experienced on the ice, the Olympic champion then turned his hand to motor racing, earning some creditable results on the professional circuit.