SOCHI, Russia -- Eddy Alvarez had spent more time on his backside than his blades during the Winter Olympics.
At the treacherous short-track speedskating oval, which often resembled a demolition derby, Miami’s Alvarez experienced lots of spills and no thrills. But Friday, in the very last race for the beleaguered U.S. speedskaters, luck finally smiled on the team that stumbled on the threshold of every medal podium for the past two weeks.
Alvarez and three teammates stayed upright throughout the nerve-wracking 5,000-meter relay and finished just .271 seconds behind Russia to take the silver medal.
“We are not going home empty-handed, and that is awesome,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez brought Miami spice to Sochi’s ice with his forceful style of racing. He became the second Cuban-American to win a Winter Olympic medal, following the path of four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist Jennifer Rodriguez, who also grew up in Miami. He became the second Miamian to win silver here, after bobsled brakeman Lauryn Williams did it in the mountains on Wednesday.
Alvarez, who raced with Cuban flags appliquéd on the flaps of his skates, climbed into the stands to embrace his parents, Walter and Mabel, both born in Cuba. He gave his Olympic bouquet to his mother. He hugged his sister, Nicole. He felt a euphoric sense of relief.
“The pressure had been building,” he said. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but I am so happy to get a silver medal for my home country and my parents’ home country.”
In that moment, as Russian fans surrounding the Alvarez family slapped their shoulders and shook their hands, 20 years of memories flooded through the minds of Walter and Mabel: Alvarez, age 4, snaking around the furniture after receiving roller skates for Christmas, then becoming “Eddy the Jet,” a child phenom on Ocean Drive who dazzled South Beach tourists with his inline tricks. He took to the ice at a Kendall rink like a natural, and, at age 9, won national titles in inline, long track and short track in Pensacola, Butte, Mont., and Cleveland. In 2012, bilateral knee surgery almost ended Alvarez’s Olympic hopes, but a smooth recovery at home got him back on his skates. His parents were with him on every trip, through every setback, their odyssey culminating in Sochi.
“A happy ending,” said Walter, whose American flag was held aloft by the skaters during their celebratory laps. “It was [a] rough meet, and the medal was the reward. Even by short-track standards, the number of falls was abnormal.”
Alvarez, 24, began his Olympic schedule with a disqualification for pushing an Italian skater in the 1,500 meters. He was tackled when a Canadian skater fell in front of him in the 1,000 meters. He tangled and crashed in a heap with a South Korean skater who impeded him in a qualifying race for the relay, and the U.S. was advanced to the final upon video review. In a 500 heat, he slipped on a soft patch when trying to pass and went down again. He joked that he deserved a medal for his proficiency at slamming into the pads.
But short trackers are equanimous characters, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to stomach the fact that so many races are decided by happenstance.
What goes around and around, comes around and around. Remember how Australia’s Steven Bradbury won the 2002 Olympic 1,000-meter race when everyone in front of him crumpled in a last-turn pileup, and he cruised unscathed across the finish line, arms raised in triumph?
The Americans got their share of good fortune in the relay, truly one of the more bizarre sights in sports, as exchanges are made when one skater pushes his teammate in the rear end. Instead of passing a baton, skaters deliver a shove of momentum, eight times each over 45 laps.
On the first turn Friday, China’s lead skater fell, causing a chain reaction that took down the Netherlands’ skater and forced Kazakhstan to go wide. American Chris Creveling, in the back, side-stepped to avoid the carnage and stayed within striking distance of frontrunner Russia.
The race should have been re-started because there was contact before the fourth block, said U.S. coach Steve Gough, “but the starter must not have been watching, and the referee couldn’t do anything at that point,” he said.
The U.S. skaters churned along on the heels of the Russians, crouching low through tight corners. Alvarez, who gets the lightest push from the smallest guy on the team, Jordan Malone, kept making up gaps.
The U.S. took the lead with 15 laps to go on Alvarez’s push of Creveling. But with eight left, Russia’s Victor An, the ex-South Korean star, slid past the U.S. and retook the lead. He held on to win his third gold in Sochi despite a furious anchor leg by J.R. Celski.
“Our coach told us he was tired of seeing other countries celebrate,” Malone said. “To win silver is a huge weight off our backs.”
At the 2010 Olympics, U.S. short-track athletes won six medals and long-track skaters won four. The speedskating team’s total of one medal is the biggest disappointment of the 2014 Games for the U.S.
Short trackers bemoaned poor ice quality at the Iceberg Skating Palace, where the temperature fluctuated to accommodate figure skating events. It was like skating through ice cream and caused many falls and chain-reaction crashes.
For Alvarez, whose best time would have put him in the medal mix in the 500, silver was sweet redemption.
He got to share the podium with best friend Celski. He was with Celski four years ago when Celski fell during the Olympic trials, gashed open his thigh and left a puddle of blood on the ice.
It was during a visit to Celski’s hospital room that Alvarez promised Celski and himself that he would work even harder to make the 2014 team.
“It’s a brotherhood,” said Alvarez, a Columbus High graduate who grew up in the Roads neighborhood. “We didn’t perform up to our potential individually, but we have a strong bond on this team.”
Later, Alvarez met his parents under the U.S. flag at Olympic Plaza. They took a walk along the Black Sea shoreline.
“Because of all Eddy went through to get here, he’s a stronger person, a better person,” Walter said. “To stand on the podium with the flag makes it all worth it.”
Looking out at the waves, they reflected back to those days in Miami Beach, when Eddy the Jet first dreamed of skating at the Olympics.