SOCHI, Russia -- Eddy Alvarez stepped on the ice. Checked his skates, adjusted his helmet, tugged his pivot glove. Stroked around the track. Took a deep breath. Exhaled. He was ready for the starting gun.
Then his game face gave way to a grin.
He couldn’t help it. He was in the Olympics. He was an Olympian. He was wearing the USA uniform. The five rings were dangling above his head.
He was here, competing in the Winter Games after so many years dreaming of it, sweating for it, crying about it.
The scene was how he pictured it, only better.
“The lights, the cameras, the noise, the people, the flags,” he said. “I’m so happy.”
What an unlikely odyssey for Alvarez, the speedskater from Miami, the second Cuban-American to compete in the Winter Olympics. From SoBe, where he was a roller skating prodigy on Ocean Drive, to Sochi, where he began competition Monday in the 1,500-meter race.
He was a baseball player at Columbus High who chose short track over shortstop. He chose sliding on his backside into walls at 30 mph over sliding into bases. He chose the combustible and unpredictable – some would say inscrutable and random – sport that gives the Olympics its most chaotic finishes.
“Long track speedskating is like a symphony, with a rhythm,” Alvarez said, comparing the sport of Jennifer Rodriguez – his inspiration and the first Miamian to compete in the Winter Games – to the sport of Apolo Anton Ohno. “Short track is like metal music, screaming inside your head.”
Alvarez loves churning around the 111-meter oval in a deep crouch at extreme angles in races that feature as many wipeouts as clean results.
“That’s short track,” athletes say with a fatalistic shrug after another spill makes them fall like bowling pins. They said it again Monday, knowing that bad fortune in one race gets offset by good fortune in another.
In Alvarez’s case, a calculated move turned into a penalized one, and he was disqualified from his semifinal. What was intended to be a bump became a shove as he tried to squeeze through a crevice between opponents with five laps to go.
“I guess I made an impact in my first Olympic event,” Alvarez said, smiling. “I might have dropped a shoulder.”
He saw an opening, tried to pass, knocked Italian Yuri Confortola off balance and sent him whirling away from the pack.
“My plan was to conserve energy from the back and pick people off,” Alvarez said. “I saw the Russian [Semen Elistratov] go wide in the turn and thought, ‘Here’s my chance.’ But the Italian was too close and I made too much contact.”
Alvarez kept racing but his momentum was broken. He wound up fifth, which was moot, because after video review, judges disqualified him.
“OK, the American is DQ’d but for me the race was finished right there,” Confortola said. “Basta.”
Alvarez, 23, son of a former boxing promoter, is not afraid to mix it up. The sport’s recently liberalized rules on contact when making a pass favor aggressive skaters. Alvarez made a strong move in his opening heat to finish third. He was disappointed his gamble didn’t pay off in the semi, but not upset.
“Things happen in short track,” he said. “I’m having fun. I’m letting the tiger out. It’s the Olympics. You’ve got to go for it.”
Besides, the 1,500 – short track’s longest race – is his weakest event. He didn’t compete in it this World Cup season. He’s still got the 1,000 meters, the 5,000-meter relay and his favorite, the 500-meter sprint.
“Eddy is not a distance guy,” U.S. coach Stephen Gough said. “I’m happy with how he skated. A door opened, a door closed. He was a little unlucky.”
Alvarez’s good friend and teammate J.R. Celski, the U.S. team’s top skater, placed fourth in the final after Great Britain’s Jack Whelbourne tripped in front of him, causing him to swerve and lose speed. Canada’s Charles Hamelin won the gold medal.
As for Alvarez, Celski said: “It’s a bummer. It happens to all of us.”
PROUD PARENTS LOOK ON
Alvarez’s parents, Walter and Mabel, were in the stands waving a U.S. flag and pinching themselves. They remember when their 4-year-old boy got roller skates for Christmas, skated around the furniture in their house in the Roads neighborhood and jumped off the back stoop. He used to entertain beachgoers as Eddy the Jet with inline tricks at Lummus Park. He became a junior inline champion, then took to the ice like a natural.
He excelled at baseball, too, like older brother Nick, who played for the Dodgers’ Triple A affiliate. Alvarez juggled sports for years, but always had a fascination with the Olympics. He devoted himself to speedskating, moving to California to train with Celski, then to Utah to join the U.S. team.
But wear and tear on his knees, and excruciating pain, almost forced him to stop. Double knee surgery to repair damaged patellar tendons two years ago renewed his ability to stick with a grueling training program.
“For Eddy to be one of the athletes in the Olympics is amazing,” said Walter who, like Mabel, was born in Cuba. “Having Hispanic roots, we are proud to have our son represent the country that took us in.”
In Sochi, Alvarez is just getting started. Look for that magnetic smile in the next event. It’s got a mischievous curl to it. He will find an opening. Or make one.
“That’s the beauty of short track,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen until you hit the finish line.”