Charmed gold brightens games

Ammann, Shea, Ohno among beneficiaries of the positive karma

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 24, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - People snickered when skier Picabo Street talked about karma being a part of the Olympics.

But there has been enough karma, good and bad, at these Winter Games to fill a fleet of flowered Volkswagen microbuses.

Looking for the good stuff? Start with Street. No, she didn't win a third medal to go with her 1998 gold and 1994 silver. But America's most-decorated and oft-injured skier finished her career in one piece, in her favorite event - the downhill - in front of an adoring crowd just miles from her home.

How about Harry Potter lookalike Simon Ammann, the 21-year-old Swiss ski jumper, who stunned the field not once, but twice in winning the gold in the 90-meter and 120-meter events.

"It's true, we do resemble each other," Ammann said of Potter. "But I don't think there was a fairy wand waved over me."

Try telling the competition favorites that the soft-spoken, bespectacled athlete wasn't blessed by something supernatural.

Something - karma? --- was working overtime for the Canadian pairs team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Public outrage at shoddy judging forced Olympic and international figure skating officials to replace their silver medals with the gold of champions.

Then there's skeleton slider Jim Shea Jr., the third-generation Olympian who rocketed down the hill at Bear Hollow and onto the podium with the spirit of his grandfather along for the ride.

Jack Shea "preached the Olympic gospel," according to his son, Jim Shea Sr., a 1964 Olympian, and worked tirelessly to bring the Winter Games back to Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, the same place he won two gold speed skating medals in 1932.

The elder Shea was killed by a suspected drunken driver just weeks before he could watch his grandson take the athlete's oath at the opening ceremony.

But Jim Shea said his grandfather was with him as he won the gold medal and reintroduced a sport that had been missing from the Olympics since 1948.

You could light a town with the smiles and enthusiasm of good karma ambassadors Alisa Camplin and Tristan Gale. Camplin, the Australian aerialist, and Gale, the American skeleton rider, were happy just to be competing, and thrilled beyond description with the gold medals dangling from the blue ribbons around their necks. Even competitors couldn't help but smile.

"That's the craziest thing that ever happened to me," said Camplin, who almost had to be tethered to keep from spinning off into space.

Australia got its first gold medal in Winter Olympics history when Apolo Anton Ohno's brief encounter with bad karma produced a crash near the finish line of the 1,000-meter short-track speed skating event. Steven Bradbury, the last man standing, cruised to victory.

"I don't know if everything sits perfectly well in my stomach about how I won the race," Bradbury confessed of his gift.

The karma chameleon slithered right back to Ohno in his next race, when he won the gold in the 1,500-meter event after the leader, Kim Dong-sung, was disqualified on a controversial call.

Bad karma, which merely brushed some athletes, crept up and draped itself around others like a boorish drunk at a bar.

Bobsled driver Jean Racine became the lightning rod for the bad stuff after dumping her long-time partner and best friend, Jen Davidson, for a faster set of legs, only to see Gea Johnson pull up lame two days before competition with a hamstring injury. Racine then couldn't leave bad enough alone, and attempted to steal the pusher from the USA 2 sled just before the start of the event.

"Given all we've been through, it feels like the gold medal to me," said an unhappy Racine of her poor showing.

Hint: Fifth-place finishes don't come with blue ribbons.

The Russian and South Korean teams apparently missed out on the karma distribution, but filed protests to get what they felt was rightfully theirs.

Figure skaters Todd Eldredge of the United States and Elvis Stojko of Canada each came back for one more Olympics, hoping to grasp what had eluded them. The medal proved to be unattainable, but both men finished their careers riding the waves of true affection from the crowd.

Sometimes, even nods to the karma keepers weren't enough to stay out of harm's way.

German bobsledder Christoph Langen, eight-time world champion and winner of the 1998 gold medal in the four-man event, had a little pig charm on the zipper of his jacket. This year, luck was with him when he won the two-man event, then abandoned him Friday in the first day of the four-man, when a torn foot muscle forced him to withdraw.

The guardian angel pin that U.S. women's hockey goalie Sarah Tueting wore on her shoulder pads during the gold-medal game against Canada in 1998 lost its power when worn by goalie Sara DeCosta. The two teams switched places on the podium this time.

On the other hand, Sarah Hughes parlayed her lucky charm into a gold medal in figure skating. The 16-year-old surprised everyone when she catapulted from fourth place to victory.

"I have this T-shirt of [gold medalist] Peggy Fleming and I always wear it to bed the night before I compete, so it's kind of my lucky shirt," she revealed.

Then there's the good karma that doesn't translate into medals, but is precious nonetheless.

Baltimore's J.P. Shilling felt that as he skated to his personal best Tuesday in the 1,500-meter long track event before family and friends in one of his last performances before retiring.

"I don't know what you call it," he said, grinning, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. "But it sure feels good. I hope it's with me for a long, long time."

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