In his native Canada, and wherever he goes around the world, people still bring it up to Mathieu Turcotte; that crazy, stupid, unforgettable race won by the Aussie guy when everybody else fell over.
Twenty years on, Steven Bradbury’s Salt Lake City victory remains the most talked-about race in speed skating. Far more than that, it’s still one of the most astonishing moments in Olympic Games history — in any sport.
Turcotte has to chuckle when people bring the race up to him in conversation not realising that he was in it. And not just in it, but one of the lucky ones to make it across the finish line to win a medal that nobody, including himself, expected him to win. You could even say he kind of … did a Bradbury.
Turcotte was one of the four skaters caught up in the race’s infamous final-corner pile-up. Had things turned out even slightly differently it could well have been him skating through the line, arms outstretched and eyes wide with disbelief, then standing atop the podium. But the Canadian, now 44, looks back on the moment of chaos as a true blessing, and not just for himself and ‘accidental hero’ Bradbury.
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‘ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN’
Turcotte and Bradbury arrived in Salt Lake City at different stages of their career — competing at their first and fourth Games respectively — but with shared billing as skaters who were talented and respected, but not expected to be anywhere near the podium.
“I was not a medal contender, that’s for sure,” Turcotte tells foxsports.com.au mid-road trip and bound for a ski holiday in his homeland.
“But I knew I had a shot at making the semi-finals and maybe even a final, because it had happened before (at World Cup level)
“For me, at like like Steven, just to be in the semi, and then in the final, it was quite an achievement.
“And when I was on the start line, just before getting on the ice for the final, I just thought ‘do your best, anything could happen’. And that was exactly how everything ended up.”
Bradbury, having turned in one of the performances of his career in the quarter-finals, made the tactical call to hang back from his younger, faster rivals and effectively try stay out of trouble in the semis and final.
Turcotte, while sensing he may also be outmatched, had a bolder strategy. He decided to give it absolutely everything he had early and see what happened, knowing he’d likely have little to offer at the finish.
“I knew, just like Steven, anything could happen,” Turcotte said. “I didn’t have his experience but I thought I better be up close toward the end of the race to maybe have a shot at a medal because I probably won’t have the strength or the speed to pass anybody at the end.”
‘I ALWAYS BELIEVED STEVE DESERVES IT’
Turcotte was in fourth but well-clear of fifth-placed Bradbury when things started heating up up front with jostling between American gold medal favourite Apolo Anton Ohno and China’s Li Jiajun.
When Li bumped into South Korean teen Ahn Hyun Soo, who fell into Ohno and all three went down, Turcotte was close enough to be caught up in the carnage.
Tucotte’s quick reaction, getting up and lunging at the line foot first just behind Ohno, ensured him a medal but he admits there’s an irony that sometimes crosses his mind. Of course, like Bradbury, he benefited from the carnage. But if he was only a tad slower, even one metre further back from the pack — let alone the five Bradbury was — it could have been him who gliding effortlessly into accidental gold.
“Of course I did think about that,” Turcotte said.
“But what comes back to me all the time in my mind is I’m sure they would have called that race back if I didn’t fall and if there were two men left standing.
“There would still be a re-race and everything and I’m like ‘Oh no, I don’t know if I would have had the energy to race again’
“It turned out to be the best race for me because I got my medal there. It was a bonus, but a medal I’m still very proud of.”
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Bradbury has candidly admitted he wrestled with whether or not to accept the medal in the moments before it was presented, ultimately deciding he would for the arduous 14-year journey that included a life-threatening accident and a broken neck just two years earlier.
Turcotte recalls: “If I take it back to my own thinking between the end of the race and the medal presentation … it was hard because it was just crazy. The stadium wouldn’t shut down. Everybody was so loud. All the time it was crazy, completely crazy, and for good reason.
“… but I always believed and I still believe that Steve deserves that medal for everything he did in his career.”
‘IT CHANGES EVERYTHING’
The result turned out to be just the beginning for Turcotte on the world stage. He collected relay gold at Salt Lake City and silver in Turin four years later. He finished his career with seven world championship gold and says his individual medal also helped pave the way for his post-career success in running his own custom skates manufacturing business, Apex Racing Skates
“Just getting the medal … That changes everything,” Turcotte said.
“If you become an Olympic medallist … the step between a fourth place and third place is really big. It’s really helped me out in many ways.
“My feeling is what happened to everybody there in the race is the best situation that could have happened.
“One guy that didn’t get a medal there, the Korean Ahn Hyun Soo. He was 16 at the time and he turned out to be one of the best ever speed skaters that ever raced.
“An experience like that, something like that, I guess it teaches you something. It teaches you to be a really resilient athlete and he turned out to be one of the great athletes and that’s just one example.
“Steven, he’s a really good guy and everybody appreciates him. And I think what happened to him is the best thing that could ever happen.
“Now I look back it’s just a fun thing to have been a part of, that race we did there. It’s such an incredible story.”