KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It’s one thing to know you need two flawless runs to win a medal in skeleton at the Olympic Games. It’s another to deliver when the pressure is suffocating and the teeniest, tiniest mistake will keep you off the podium.
Matt Antoine delivered Saturday night.
In a big, big way.
Antoine, 28, of Prairie du Chien, Wis., laid down two exceptional runs at the Sanki Sliding Center to win the men’s skeleton bronze medal. He advanced 0.32 seconds ahead of Tomass Dukurs of Latvia in the final run to claim a podium position.
“It’s unbelievable,” Antoine said. “It’s going to take some time to process it for sure, but it’s the greatest moment of my life, without a doubt. I’ve been preparing for this moment, but it’s still just unreal right now.”
Russia’s Alexander Tretiakov won the gold medal, completing four trips down the track in 3 minutes 44.29 seconds and reaching a top speed of 81 mph. He easily beat Latvia’s Martins Dukurs (3:45.10), who settled for silver again after having just missed out on gold four years ago in Vancouver.
Antoine’s four-run total was 3:47.26, good enough to give him the first skeleton medal for an American man since Jimmy Shea’s gold in 2002. Antoine, then 16, watched those Salt Lake City Games and was inspired to give skeleton a try.
Going into the final run, John Daly of Smithtown, N.Y., was in fourth place but just 0.04 seconds behind Antoine. The two close friends and Olympic roommates had been in this position before, having battled one another in points for a spot on the 2010 Olympic team. It was Daly who earned the berth after winning six consecutive races on the Intercontinental and America’s Cup circuits.
This time, they were battling for bronze at the Olympic Games.
Daly was the first of the two to take his run. He burst off the starting block but just before he loaded onto his sled, it popped out of the start groove and skittered sideways into the wall. He recovered, but his chance to medal was over. He finished 15th with a combined time of 3:49.11.
“I went for it and I don’t regret going for it,” said Daly, who finished 17th in Vancouver. “I do wish I had one more chance. The sole blame was on myself. There’s no one else to blame here but me. I know I left it all out there, but I really do wish for the first time in my career that I had a second chance and I didn’t have to wait four more years.”
Antoine heard groans as he went to the start line and knew something bad had happened during Daly’s run. Coach Tuffy Latour reassured Antoine, who then put together a clean run, finishing in 56.73 seconds to pass Tomass Dukurs, Martins’ brother, for bronze.
Tretiakov maintained his overnight two-heat lead to win Olympic gold in front of a flag-waving partisan crowd. Martins Dukurs, the overall World Cup champion, finished 0.81 seconds behind the dominant Tretiakov and 2.16 seconds ahead of Antoine.
“They pushed phenomenally well and they drove phenomenally well,” Antoine said. “Realistically, everyone knew we were racing for bronze, so hats off to them.”
Kyle Tress of Ewing, N.J., just missed qualifying for the final heat, which is reduced to the top 20 sleds. He finished 21st with a three-run combined time of 2:53.74.
As Antoine celebrated during the flower ceremony, Daly walked through the media mixed zone. Obviously heartbroken over his finish, he answered questions haltingly.
“I know I wouldn’t be as good as I am without Kyle and Matt,” he said. “If I had to pick anyone else to take my medal position, I’d pick one of those guys. It’s tears of sadness, but it’s also tears of joy because a guy I grew up with, a guy I slid with my entire career, my whole life, won a medal. I’m proud of him.”
After undergoing knee surgery before the 2012-’13 season and struggling to regain his form,
Antoine had a breakout season this year, winning three World Cup medals including his first gold.
“My heart really goes out to John for the way that ended for him,” Antoine said. “We’ve pushed each other to be where we are for our entire careers and I don’t think either one of us would be where we are today, contending for a medal, if we hadn’t been supporting one another along the way.”