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2010 Winter Olympics: The ecstasy and the agony

Win or lose, U.S. Olympians cherish experience of Games

Vancouver — Shaun White was expecting a little more love from the reporters who'd been badgering him about throwing his trademark trick in the world's biggest snowboarding competition — the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. "So did you guys like that trick? What did you think? Come on, I've been working pretty hard on it." said White, who threw the McTwist 1260 on his second run, despite already owning the gold medal in snowboard halfpipe. "I came all the way to Vancouver to do something amazing," he said. "And I felt like a righteous victory lap was in order."

After the win, he was as relieved as he was ecstatic.

"I feel great," said White as he exchanged banter with reporters. "I can't even describe it. It's one of those things where, I can't even begin to tell you, or begin to describe how many times I've gone over this run in my mind, gone over this competition in my head, imagined what it would be like. I can finally go do sleep now."

White is one of those guys whom U.S. winter sports fans expected to stand atop the podium with a medal draped around his neck. The joy of these 2010 Games may be how many unexpected medals U.S. athletes have earned in Vancouver.

With four days of Winter Games competition remaining, the U.S. has treated British Columbia like its home field, winning 28 medals in all, including seven gold, nine silver and 12 bronze medals through Wednesday's events.

Here are some moments of ecstasy and agony in the Land of the Maple Leaf:

APOLO ANTON OHNO was competing in his third Olympics and seemed to live up to the lofty expectations effortlessly.

The South Jordan resident did, however, have to rally from last place to third in earning his place in history Saturday. Ohno scooted furiously past Charles and Francois Hamelin to earn a bronze in the short-track speedskating 1,000-meter final Saturday night, making him the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with seven medals.

"I really had to fight," he said. "I can't wait to watch the tape and see how I came back from last place to win bronze."

BODE MILLER proved the best way to silence your critics is with your performance. He won a bronze, silver and gold medal in this Olympics to go with his two silvers from 2002. He is the only American to ever win five medals in Alpine skiing. And he did it in four different events.

Sunday, he won the only award he didn't own — an Olympic gold medal — in the super combined. Even he expressed a little disbelief that his top finish came in an event that is not his best.

"The way I executed, the way I skied, is something I'll be proud of the rest of my life," Miller said.

"I skied with 100 percent heart — I didn't hold anything back. … It's just awesome. There's nothing else to say."

LINDSEY VONN is intimately familiar with disappointment. After dominating the women's Alpine World Cup for the last two years, a shin injury just two weeks before the Games threatened to keep her from the one honor she didn't have — an Olympic medal. In a pre-Olympic press conference, she said she wanted a medal more than she could say, one "of any color."

Even she doubted if maybe it wasn't in the cards for her to feel the joy of an Olympic accomplishment.

"Yeah, I did wonder (if it was not meant to be)," she said, tears brimming her eyes after she won her gold medal in women's downhill last Wednesday. "With all the injuries I've had this season, I felt things weren't going my way. I was still winning downhill and super G races, but I wasn't completely healthy … then the injury to my shin, the walls came tumbling down. I was really depressed and sad. Just hoping my Olympic dream was still alive."

She crossed the finish line and screamed with joy.

"It's one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life," she said.

JULIA MANCUSO has struggled with a back injury and has rallied in the shadow of her more famous teammate, Lindsey Vonn. She didn't let a little thing like low expectations keep her from becoming the most decorated female Olympic Alpine skier as she has earned two silver medals in these games, bringing her career total to four.

It just goes to show that you really can do anything you put your mind to," said Mancuso of her Olympic success. "Just really believe in yourself."

U.S. HOCKEY TEAMwas the underdog on an auspicious anniversary. This is the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" — when the U.S. hockey team, made up of college players, defeated the much-heralded, two-time gold medal-winning Soviet Union squad at Lake Placid, N.Y., in the semifinals.

This year's U.S. goalie is a professional player, Ryan Miller, but he had some pressure of his own when many proclaimed him to be the key to the U.S. team's success on Canadian ice.

Miller said he knows very well how much the Canadian fans were looking forward to defeating the U.S. on Sunday in pool play.

"The crowd just made it more exciting," said a smiling Miller after the U.S. upset Canada 5-3. "Walking around town the last few nights, there was some trash-talking going on. I had to bury my head when I was out walking around with my family. No, it was pretty polite trash-talk, we are in Canada after all. It was like, 'Hey, there's Ryan Miller the U.S. goalie.' And then his friends would gather around and say, "Go, Canada, Go!' "

In truth, Miller loves playing in front of a Canadian crowd.

"They know the game; they respect the game," he said. "I think that's what makes it great about coming here to play."

JOHNNY SPILLANE and the nordic combined team have been working for nearly two decades to put themselves on the map. They made their way out of obscurity in a big way last week when they finished second, fourth, and sixth in the first of three events.

"I'm just thrilled," said Spillane, Steamboat Springs, Colo., who earned a silver medal Sunday afternoon in front of 4,500 screaming fans at the Whistler Olympic Park's cross-country ski course. "It took a lot, a lot of hard work. … As Americans, the Olympics is it for us. And maybe sometimes that puts a little too much pressure on the team, and people expect things that might not be possible. But going into this year, we have three guys who are very consistent and very strong, and it didn't take anything special today. It wasn't like this was a miracle event. And we still put three guys into the top six."

Even in defeat, even in disappointment, U.S. athletes are cherishing the kind of competition some never know.

CHAD HEDRICKdreamed often and intensely about what would happen in the last individual speedskating race of his life. He imagined how it would feel, what it would sound like and how it would end.

He never imagined a lifetime of skating would end with sixth place in a race he's dedicated the last two years of his life to winning.

And, never, even in the worst-case scenario, did he see his heavily favored American teammate Shani Davis losing to anyone but himself.

"The Olympics is all about one guy coming out and having that special day," said Hedrick, who said his emotions robbed him of his focus in his final race. "If I was a betting man, I would have put my money on the Americans."

It was not Hedrick or world record-holder Davis. It was Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands who won gold. Davis won silver, and Hedrick left with the memories of a great career.

"That's just the way of the sport," said Davis, who now owns a gold and silver from the 2010 Games. "On any given day, anyone can go out and achieve greatness. Even though I'm a heavy favorite, I try not to see myself as a favorite. I try not to get too far ahead of myself no matter what I've accomplished. I like to have the underdog approach. I was really fired up, hoping I could cap these Olympics off with a gold, but that's just the luck of the draw. I just did the best I could, and I just wasn't strong enough."

DARON RAHLVESshook off a dislocated hip (three weeks ago) to compete in the first ski cross competition at the Olympic Games. He didn't get the medal he dreamed about, but he made some amazing memories.

"I never have regrets," he said. "I'm out there having fun. I still had fun today. The ultimate is just to love what you do and go out there and give it a shot. It's not the way I wanted to end my ski cross career as far as the competition side of things."

THE U.S. CURLING TEAM didn't just fail to medal, it didn't even live up to its own expectations. The low point came Sunday when the team lost to Great Britain and ended playoff hopes.

"I just threw it like crap. I'm not going to lie about it and say it over-curled or anything," said Jason Smith, Cape Coral, Fla. "The guys played great in front of me. I just needed to make more shots. I'll take 100 percent of the blame for that one. I was the slacker out there today. I'm going hear my gramps say it anyway, so I may as well say it out loud."

NOELLE PIKUS-PACE might just be the most gracious fourth-place finisher in the history of sport.

Just 0.1 of a second from a bronze medal in skeleton, the Orem native said she was thrilled her story unfolded as it did.

"It is a little bit disappointing being fourth, but I feel like it was all I had," she said. "I laid it out on the line. I took some risks that I felt were necessary, and that's actually my best finish of the year."

It might have been a bitter pill for some to swallow after she was injured in 2005, just four months before the 2006 Games when she was at the top of her game. But Pikus-Pace said the ride, both literally and figuratively, had been "incredible."

"This was so worth the four-year wait," she said as tears brimmed her eyes and her smile widened. "The anticipation of it was like a kid waiting for Disneyland or Christmas. It's been so worth it; I can't even explain."

Ted Ligety came into this year's Games leading the World Cup men's giant slalom standings, and he was the 2008 World Cup champion in the same specialty. That success, coupled with his gold-medal showing in the combined at the 2006 Olympics in Italy, put Ligety on the short list of favorites for another medal in Vancouver.

But in Tuesday's giant slalom, a slow second run dropped the Park City skier to ninth place in the final standings.

"Its very disappointing, he said. Ninth place is never my goal, and I felt like I had a very good chance at a podium. It just didnt work out that way.

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com