VANCOUVER — Though carnage can even the odds for even the odd ones out, there is often a short straw to be drawn in the wacky, unpredictable world of short track speedskating and it surely seemed Jessica Gregg kept finding it.
And the last time it happened it cost her a medal. Fourth in the final of the women’s 500 metres. Crushing disappointment mixed with splendid achievement.
So close at 21 and yet so far to go. She had been able to imagine winning a medal at Pacific Coliseum, where her dad Randy played hockey for the Oilers against the Canucks back in the day. Winning it in front of both beaming parents, former Canadian Olympians themselves. Kathy was a long track speedskater in Innsbruck and Lake Placid, where she met her husband.
Instead, she crossed the finish line behind perennial champion Meng Wang of China, who is a short track icon, teammate Marianne St-Gelais and Arianna Fontana of Italy, who looks 12 but is a police officer.
She lived up to all that promise that has been building since 2007, with four World Cup podium finishes in her best race, including a gold, as well as a bronze at the 2009 worlds. The girl is good. Not as gold, silver or bronze yet, but just wait around awhile.
Because she only seems to get stronger with each race and every challenge. And the final was all of that. Wang burst to the front and behind her there was chaos, Fontana knocking Gregg to the ice and she in turn taking down St-Gelais. There was a restart. Then a false start. Then she got left in the dust at the first corner and never made up enough ground.
It was heartbreaking.
It had been a tough night all around. The quarter-final was a tense affair and she hung in there but she not only won her semifinal, she dominated the American who began this crazy night by breaking the Olympic record, Katherine Reutter. In fact, Gregg never saw anyone in front of her through all five laps. The race was hers start to finish in 43.854, a time that put her in lane three for the final against Fontana, St-Gelais and Wang, who took back the Olympic record that had been hers until the first race of the night by going 42.985 in the semifinal.
The night had begun in daunting fashion for Gregg against Wang, Evgenia Radanova and Sarah Lindsay.
Those were her opponents in a quarter-final heat. At that time they were the reigning Olympic champ and world-record holder from China; the Olympic silver medallist in both 2006 and 2002 from Bulgaria skating in her sixth and final Games; and an aggressive, angry girl from Great Britain who is retiring after this season and put all her energies into the 500 metres.
No pressure or anything.
You know what they say about Wang?
“I think her technique, the way she skates, is a man’s technique,” said Radanova, who was issuing a compliment rather than a demand for a gender test. “I think this makes her better than the other girls.”
So you get the idea. For Gregg to survive even this heat was a neat feat.
Wang set the Olympic record Saturday in a qualifying heat, for crying out loud, by almost a tenth of a second. Then she lost it before she even stepped on the ice Wednesday, ceding it to Reutter. This apparently made Wang hungry for more.
You see, she last lost a 500-metre race at the worlds in 2005. She doesn’t lose over 500 metres to anyone anymore. She didn’t lose Wednesday. In fact, nobody came close to her all night.
There wasn’t enough room on the short track to muscle past those resumes, never mind the actual skaters. So Gregg was up against it. She needed to beat two of the three to advance to the semifinals and keep alive her hopes for an Olympic medal.
And wait, there was more on the line, or at least under the surface. The Canadians made Radanova one mad Bulgarian by trying to have her disqualified from the Olympic final in Turin. Had they managed it, Canadian Kalyna Roberge would have won a bronze and Anouk Leblanc-Boucher would have moved up to silver. Instead, it was determined Radanova had in fact crossed the finish line with both skates on the ice, that was the point of Canadian contention, and she won her silver medal and Roberge remained in fourth place.
There won’t be another 500-metre medal for Radanova. After a start that was, even by short track standards bizarre, Lindsay was disqualified for impeding Gregg on the first turn of the second re-start. Lindsay and Gregg had both crashed in the failed first attempt at making it through the fourth block, at which point a race becomes official. Then Gregg false-started on the first re-start. Then they barely got to the apex of the first corner when Lindsay shouldered Gregg into the ice and was DQ’d like dinner.
“As far as I’m concerned, until you’re on the track, nobody has the right of way. I was already at a disadvantage being on the outside. We both crashed, but she fell. It’s not my fault she’s clumsier than I am.”
Lindsay’s coach was outraged. Her teammate Elise Christie was incensed.
“Pardon me but you’ve got to be aggressive. They’re basically telling you not to be aggressive. That’s stupid,” said Christie.
With more elbow room at the line they finally got the race going and Gregg busted out into second spot behind the world record holder, hung on to her position all the way through five laps and bumped Radanova one race closer to retirement. She’s 37. It’s time.
“If you can do it and you enjoy to do it there is no age to stop at,” said Radanova.