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As the only speed skater to avoid falling in a pile-up during the 1,000m final at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Steven Bradbury recorded a memorable victory that guaranteed him a place in Australian Olympic history.
At 8.46 pm on 16 February 2002, in the Salt Lake City Ice Center, five men took their places for the 1,000m short track speed skating final. 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, 1998 silver medallist Li Jiajun (CHN) and the formidable Mathieu Turcotte (CAN) were all expected to battle for a place on the podium. Completing the line-up was Australian outsider Steven Bradbury.
One of speed skating’s most unexpected results only took shape in the final bend of the race. “I was quite far behind the other four guys with two laps to go,” recalled Bradbury. “And then there was complete chaos, and everybody fell down. 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.”
In reality, Li Jiajun had attempted to overtake Ohno, which led to both athletes hitting the ice and bringing down Ahn Hyun-Soo and Turcotte. Much to the surprise of the crowd, Bradbury, the only man still standing, proceeded to cross the finish line and claim an unlikely gold medal.
His win, which was Australia’s first-ever gold at the Olympic Winter Games, instantly secured him legendary status back home. And a few days later Alisa Camplin drew inspiration from her compatriot’s achievement to secure a freestyle skiing gold that further increased the Antipodean
country’s sense of elation.
In fact, Bradbury, skating in his fourth Games in Utah, was no stranger to Olympic breakthroughs, having been part of the team that landed a bronze medal in the 5,000m relay at Lillehammer 1994, the first time that any Australian had stepped onto a podium at the Winter Games. From 2006 onwards, many Australian athletes would follow suit, mainly in freestyle skiing, but also in snowboarding.
Having become a household name overnight, Steven Bradbury decided to retire from speed skating following 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 2006 and 2010 Games for Australian television and appeared on the entertainment show Dancing with the Stars. In 2007, 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 former champion turned his hand to motor racing, obtaining some creditable results on the professional circuit.