KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Four years of tension were crammed into the final few minutes.
First, the Canadian sled blasted through the icy chute. The riders knew the odds were against them. The top American sled held such a huge advantage at the midpoint of the women’s bobsled that silver seemed all but certain. The Canadian sled’s veteran driver, Kaillie Humphries, who won gold in Vancouver, refused to even look at the numbers or acknowledge the huge deficit they faced.
“I just looked at her and said, ‘It’s possible,’ ” her teammate Heather Moyse said.
Sure enough, the Canada-1 sled tore through the track, shocking the U.S. team and swiping gold by just 0.1 seconds. The Americans had to take solace in winning both silver and bronze medals Wednesday, though they knew gold was within reach.
“It just slipped away,” said driver Elana Meyers, a former softball player at George Washington University.
Still, despite watching a giant lead vanish, the Americans weren’t complaining about the results Wednesday night at the Sanki Sliding Center. Piloting the USA-1 sled, Meyers became the first American woman to win two Olympic medals in bobsled. Her brakeman, Lauryn Williams, a former world-class sprinter, became the fifth athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Plus, the USA-2 sled, featuring Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans, finished in third place.
Dissecting the bobsled course
The Americans entered the night with sights set firmly on gold, though. The USA-1 sled led by a comfortable margin after the first, second and third heats. The lead at the event’s midpoint was a safe 0.23 seconds.
With a strong run, the Canadian sled chipped it down to just a 0.11 seconds after the third heat, putting it within striking distance of defending the 2010 Olympic gold.
The Canadians were the second-to-last on the track, and Humphries didn’t want to know what time they were targeting. They flew through in 57.92 seconds for a total time of 3 minutes 50.61 seconds. The USA-1 sled was next and needed 58.03 to win gold — a mark the Americans had easily bested on each of their three previous runs.
Meyers didn’t watch the Canadian sled. She was too focused on her own run. Her teammate Lolo Jones had seen it many times before.
“She’ll just put her head down and go into this crazy place where she’s like, ‘I’m going to fight for it,’ ” said Jones, a brakeman for the USA-3 sled, which finished in 11th place.
With Williams setting a fast pace, the USA-1 sled got off to yet another quick start. But things went south starting with the second turn on the track. It nicked the wall and saw time slip away.
“It was hard to watch it,” said Evans, the brakeman for the USA-2 sled. “You want so much for them to finish it out.”
Meyers and Williams reached the bottom looked up at the scoreboard and saw the numbers glowing: 58.13 seconds for a total time of 3:50.71. The gold was gone.
“I just made some mistakes,” Meyers said.
Their time in the final heat was the worst of the sled’s four runs. In fact, the times got worse each time Meyers and Williams set foot on the track.
“Anytime you’re that close and you can taste it and you don’t come down with a result, it hurts a little bit,” said Meyers, 29. “But at the end of the day, I’m super-elated for this medal.”
Since the event debuted at the 2002 Olympics, the U.S. team has claimed at least one bobsled medal at every Winter Games. The lone gold came in Salt Lake City, won by Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers. Meyers won a bronze in Vancouver but was pushing then, serving as the brakeman for Erin Pac’s sled.
The USA-2 sled had all but locked up the bronze Wednesday through the first three heats. It finished the final run in 58.16 seconds for a total time of 3:51.61. Greubel’s sled finished 0.90 seconds behind USA-1 but a comfortable 0.66 seconds ahead of the fourth-place Netherlands.
When it was over, the Americans all focused on the positives: Meyers's place in the program, Williams's place in history.
“I want to tell my kids about this moment,” Jones said, “how I consider Lauryn Williams to be like Jesse Owens. She’s amazing.”
(Williams was a bit more modest. “I didn’t come here to make history,” she said. “I came here to help Team USA.”)
Williams and Jones are relatively new additions to the bobsled team. They both made the transition from track. While neither was willing to commit to stick with the sport through the 2018 Olympics — or even next season — both said they were grateful for the experience.
Meyers, meanwhile, isn’t ready to give up. She won bronze in Vancouver, silver here in Sochi and feels something's missing.
Humphries has now topped Meyers twice on the biggest stage possible, and the talented Canadian driver is also not ruling out sticking around for the Pyeongchang Games.
“She got the best of me now,” Meyers said, “but we’ll see in four years.”