KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – Winless in the last three years in two-man bobsledding, Alexander Zubkov picked the perfect time and place to put that streak to an emphatic end.
At the Olympics. On home ice.
No one was even close, either.
The 39-year-old Russian — who carried his nation’s flag into the opening ceremony to start the Sochi Games — found magic in all four of his runs, teaming with Alexey Voevoda to finish 0.66 seconds ahead of the Swiss team of Beat Hefti and brakeman Alex Baumann and win the gold medal Monday night.
“Long-awaited victory,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee.
And it was a night 62 years in the making for the U.S., with the pairing of Steven Holcomb and Steve Langton taking the bronze, the first two-man medal showing by an American sled since 1952.
It wasn’t gold, but it was a medal savored by the Americans nonetheless. Holcomb wrapped U.S. coach Brian Shimer in a long embrace when he got out of his sled, as several teammates slapped each other on the back.
“Man, thank God,” said Holcomb, who raced through a strained left calf that required treatment Sunday and Monday. “There was a lot of pressure on me there.”
While the Americans finally didn’t leave a two-man race empty-handed, this competition was all about the Russian, who apparently knows how to coax more speed out of this track than any other bobsledder in the world.
The fact that Zubkov was competitive was no surprise. The fact that he won, maybe a little surprising. To win by such a wide margin, that was stunning.
“He had four perfect runs,” Hefti said. “He’s the winner and that’s OK.”
Zubkov’s last victory in an international two-man race was at the 2011 world championships. He’d been 0-for-25 since, yet led this competition wire to wire, even though his two closest challengers have consistently been faster during the past three seasons.
Head-to-head against Zubkov in two-man races since the start of the 2011-12 World Cup season, Holcomb had been 13-9. Hefti had simply owned the Russian, going 19-2.
Over two damp and foggy nights at the Sanki Sliding Center, none of that mattered. And neither Hefti nor Holcomb seemed disappointed with silver and bronze, either.
“This was our dream and the dream is real now,” Hefti said. “We can move on. I’m happy.”
Zubkov has had many, many more runs than anyone else down the Sanki ice, and it showed. Zubkov’s four-run time was 3 minutes, 45.39 seconds. Hefti finished in 3:46.05, and Holcomb was clocked in 3:46.27 — a mere 0.03 seconds ahead of another Russian sled that challenged for bronze.
Zubkov is the third-oldest pilot to win two-man gold and was dominant, just like every other gold medalist crowned so far at the Sochi Olympics. All seven medal competitions to date at the Sanki Sliding Center have been a blowout, with none decided by less than 0.476 seconds.
That’s a massive gap in sports where hundredths and thousandths of seconds typically make the difference.
Germany, which had won the last three gold medals in two-man, had its top sled finish eighth, the worst showing for the sliding power in the event since 1956.
“If in 2010 we were sitting in a Formula One car, then this time we were sitting in a trabby,” brakeman Kevin Kuske said, referring to one of the least-popular cars ever sold in Germany. “It’s definitely an equipment issue.”
That used to be the case for the Americans. Not anymore.