U.S. flag-bearer Todd Lodwick marches implausibly into sixth Olympic Games

SOCHI, Russia

COLUMN | The old man of the U.S. Olympic team wasn’t supposed to be here Friday night. Todd Lodwick, 37, suffered a devastating shoulder injury in a ski-jumping crash in late December and had his arm in a sling for more than a month.

He still somehow carried his country’s flag into Fisht Stadium, implausibly into his sixth Winter Olympic Games.

“I wouldn’t have missed it,” Lodwick said. “No way.”

Vladislav Tretiak wouldn’t have missed it, either.

Tretiak should have never been pulled from goal after the first period at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980, a move that paved the way for the greatest upset in international ice hockey history.

Thirty-four years later, he was figuratively sent back into the game -- lighting the torch with Irina Rodnina, the Russian figure-skating champion, about an hour before midnight here Friday to an explosion of sound and gratitude.

If Sochi is looking for a competitive theme the next two-plus weeks, The Reclamation Games might not be a bad place to start.

There was something so right about Tretiak taking and lighting the flame. Recognized at the time as perhaps the greatest hockey goalie in the world, he inexplicably was pulled by Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov after the United States’ Mark Johnson scored with one second left at the end of the first period of the game that inspired “Miracle on Ice.”

A three-time gold medalist, Tretiak would say later he believed the move cost him a fourth. Russians knew him well over the years, as the general manager of Team Russia at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and an iconic national figure. But for many years, he flew under the U.S. radar, still tethered in many minds to that one moment in time in upstate New York when anything seemed possible.

He was back now, his hair still thick and black, his chest stout, as he carried the torch toward the cauldron. Soon he will live vicariously through Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin, Russian hockey players who couldn’t deliver for Tretiak in 2010.

On the reclamation games go.

Before the U.S. flag bearer guided the largest contingent of American athletes in Winter Games history from under the stadium and into that wall of sound, Lodwick was googled, to see if anything about his story jarred the mind.

And in that instant – one nondescript click -- it became so much more difficult to chastise anyone else for forgetting to properly acknowledge the sacrifice, soul-eating defeats and, ultimately, the resiliency it takes over 20 years to get here by the Black Sea.

Todd Lodwick was forgotten, too.

Twelve years ago, in a makeshift tent in Salt Lake City, he was the one kneeling, sobbing, feeling as if he had let his teammates and country down after going out too fast in the 5 KM cross-country sprint and fading. And so went the quest to be part of the first U.S. Nordic combined team to medal in the Games. The Americans finished fourth, their best showing in Olympic history. But they and their peers had them pegged for silver, at least bronze.

‘There’s no consolation,’’ Lodwick said, the tears still coming from beneath his sandy-blond mop that day at Soldier Hollow outside of Salt Lake.

How could you not remember that, a crestfallen 25-year-old already in his third Olympics? How many times had Lodwick gone back to that day, or the time he was just 7/100ths of a second from an individual medal in Vancouver?

“Yeah, that one hurt too,” he said Thursday during a news conference here.

Because few know what Nordic combined is – ski jumping mixed with cross-country skiing – Lodwick tells everyone for probably the umpteenth time in his life it is an original Winter Games sport, dating to 1924. He gives a snapshot of his bio – father of two kids, an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old special needs boy that makes him see the balance of life, of “sacrificing.”

He is still rehabilitating non-displaced fractures in his shoulder and one rib. He tore his labrum. Twenty years after he stepped out of the U.S. procession to hug his mother in Lillehammer at the age of 17, Lodwick will compete in Sochi at “90 percent.”

Lodwick has something in common with Tretiak, much like so many others trying to recapture their form the next 16 days.

These athletes of the XXII Winter Olympiad, like Russia itself, are on the precipice of being seen for what they once were: indomitable, important and unable to disregard as old, feeble and years past their primes.

It remains to be seen whether they can all pull off resounding comebacks.

mike.wise@washpost.com

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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