GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Redemption will have to wait. For now, there is just devastation. As Elise Christie did a solo lap assessing her fourth-placed finish having crashed out in the final of the 500m short-track speed skating, her arms fell to her knees, back hunched, momentarily wiping away tears.
“I’ve worked so hard for that moment out there and I got knocked over,” Christie said afterwards. “It’s so out of my control but almost that feels worse – at least I can go home and think I didn’t make any mistakes but it still sucks.” Going home, in this case, is back to the Olympic Village, she still has two further shots at the medal she so covets having suffered further sporting heartbreak in Sochi in the lottery that is short-track speed skating.
The exact moment she was knocked over remained ambiguous in the immediate aftermath of the race. Christie was unsure — “I got hit and I couldn’t hold it” — while speed skating performance director Stewart Laing held back from pointing the finger of blame, instead waiting to deliver a post-mortem once he had watched back the race. He said they’d watch it from a technical point of view, rather than determining Christie’s misfortune but now comes the rebuilding process.
With two events to go — the 1,000 and 1,500 — any thoughts of this being another tale of Olympic heartbreak for the affable reigning world champion are extremely premature, but there is an inner drive to repay the faith shown in her over the last four years since Sochi. Four years ago she won silver in Sochi, before being disqualified, blamed for a crash which took out Park Seung-Hi. Abuse followed, but then came catharsis and confidence. The world record to her name, two Olympic records set in qualifying for the final, that beacon of hope burned bright in the hotbed of short-track but then rhyme, reason, form, expectation, hope were all thrown into the barriers.
Christie had spoken of nerves in the build up to Tuesday evening’s competition. She knew the public expectation, or hope, was she would deliver a medal here in Pyeongchang — she has the pressure of being the main gold medal hope here.
The quarterfinals had gone to plan. Falling behind into second she broke the Olympic record to storm into the semifinals. Things were a little more awkward there, qualifying for the final in second place and fourth fastest out of five finalists, but she still looked relaxed, joking with her partner –Hungarian short-track speed skater Shoulin Liu — before heading down the tunnel to mentally reset and refocus on the final. Home favourite Choi Minjeong set the benchmark with a new Olympic record: challenge laid down, South Korean speed skating fervour growing by the crossover.
As she lined up for the final, Christie was the only one of the five finalists not to break out into a beaming smile as she was introduced to the crowd; it was more a reluctant recognition. She started awkwardly, shunned to the back of the pack, but charged into medal contention with two laps to go only to then crash out. The cruel irony later was had she finished fourth in the race proper, then she would have won bronze as Choi was disqualified. Instead, because she completed her lone finish, she has fourth against her name.
Seeing her afterwards, you could feel nothing but sympathy. As she wiped away tears with a crumpled tissue, millions of thoughts running through her head, she picked through the bones of the race. She knew the likelihood of gold was slim, having ended up in lane four as she is not — in her own words — the fastest starter. But as Choi and eventual bronze medal-winner Kim Boutin bumped she made her move into second only to then get hit. Then came brutal inevitability.
“I tried my best to hold the corner but we’re going quite fast on these tiny blades and you can’t always hold it and when I went down I knew it was over because I knew they would only penalise one person.”
Performance director Laing talked calmly as he assessed the race he had just witnessed. He said such is the 360-degree nature of their planning, this was one eventuality they had already catered for. “We got through the fact that we could come here and have three penalties or we could have three medals. That’s the spectrum we’re working across.”
“It’s not always going to be the fairy-tale,” Laing added. “It’s not like we’re completely unprepared for this. What I would say is this isn’t a re-run of Sochi. It’s not a penalty. She came fourth. She unfortunately didn’t finish the race on her feet but you saw in previous races that is what can happen in this sport.”
Gold medallist Arianna Fontana expects Christie to use this as motivation, summing the sport up succinctly: “This is short track, it’s part of the game.”
Christie will wake in the Olympic Village on Wednesday and go training. “Elise is an adult, we don’t sit her down, we work with her,” Laing said. Christie’s best events are yet to come and this will be parked, as best she can, with attention turning to Saturday for the 1,500 and then the 1,000.
“I’ve got almost a week for my main event, the 1,000, to turn this around now, but obviously it just sucks,” Christie said. For now, those close will rally around, but with two events to go, hope remains, and positivity will return. Then Christie will attempt again to banish those demons of Olympic heartbreak.