One of the things most blatantly wrong with sports, particularly American sports, is the difficulty we sometimes have revering or even valuing second place. We’ve been psychologically trained that second isn’t good enough.
Yet as hard as it is to write and say this, the U.S. women’s hockey team did not win silver Thursday night. It lost gold.
This will go down as not merely one of the cruelest losses in Olympic and American sports history; this will go down as a night when finishing second finally did mean nothing.
Canada’s 3-2 overtime victory, its surreal comeback from two goals down in the final 3 minutes 26 seconds of regulation, its ability to dodge an empty-net goal that would have sealed the gold medal for the Americans with less than 90 seconds left — a shot that missed by inches when it hit the post — was about as devastating as it can ever conceivably get for a losing team.
Did we mention two questionable penalties against the United States in overtime — one slashing call that was an outright crock — that enabled Canada to go from killing a four-on-three power play to suddenly being on its own power play that ended the game 8:10 into overtime?
Everything about the ending could not be more brutally crushing.
Because this was always essentially a two-team tournament between the two countries that have contested four of the first five gold medals in women’s Olympic ice hockey play, the U.S. women lost the only truly meaningful game they will play in four years.
Julie Chu, a four-time Olympian, lost her shot at ever winning a gold medal. As she tried so desperately to find a silver lining afterward — talking about dedication and commitment and the journey being more important than the destination — you finally wanted to just give her a hug and say, “It’s okay. You don’t have to put on a proud face and be the big sister any more. You can cry. Cry all the tears you want because your teammates are doing exactly the same right now.”
How many bizarre things had to happen for Canada to win and the United States to lose?
A deflected goal off a knee, Canada’s first goal after being outplayed so much of the night, with 3:26 left in the third period.
Kelli Stack’s length-of-the-ice shot toward Canada’s empty net, which hit the post and bounced out, not in — a goal that would have given the United States a 3-1 lead with less than two minutes to play.
“From that angle, I knew it was going to hit the post right away,” she said. “But at the time, we were still up a goal. So I was thinking, that’ll be nice if it moves to the right. After they tied it up, I thought, ‘I’ve done that once before in my life in college, and it’s the worst feeling in the world.’ ”
And then the game-tying goal with 56.4 seconds left, a fluke off the boards that popped right to Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored.
“How do you wrap your head around that you were 55 seconds from the gold medal?” Julie Foudy, the two-time gold medalist from the U.S. women’s soccer team and now an ESPN analyst, asked Stack.
I can’t remember Stack’s response, but I remember Foudy saying afterward that this night will haunt them forever because, she said, the U.S. soccer team’s loss to Norway in 2000 in Sydney still interrupts her sleep 14 years later.
“I’m watching them, and I’m having a visceral reaction,” Foudy said. “I mean, that was us.”
When Alex Carpenter bent down to have the medal put around her neck, she looked visibly pained, as if not an award was being bestowed on her but instead a blunt object that was about to be driven through her torso.
From now until kingdom come, I can’t imagine any of these women considering silver a precious metal. I can imagine their significant others never gifting silver earrings or necklaces and the ones who do questioning their shopping decisions later. I can imagine friends and family members buying everything up from the wedding registry but the silver.
There is no silver lining, no useful life lesson, to this story — because the story was less than 60 seconds from being about gold.
There is no payoff about the hard work and the dedication and the good times they all shared together. Maybe later, much later, at a reunion or a team banquet somewhere. Not now.
A bunch of women who were less than a minute away from their Olympic dream had their innards hollowed out by their only rival on the world stage.
I go back to a disturbing Nike billboard during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Above a sweet, prepubescent Chinese girl on a balance beam were the words, “I Don’t Win Silver. I Lose Gold.”
I’ve always pilloried that ad as a horrible message — an overemphasis on winning, a complete lack of respect for striving to be your best, a cheap marketing gimmick destroying the ideal of sportsmanship that spawned the modern Olympic Games.
On Thursday night, though, the American women had their hearts gouged out. Being the second best in the world produced a vacancy in the soul that finally brought meaning to that horrible message on the billboard.
They really didn’t win silver. They lost gold.