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27 – Last man standing: Steven Bradbury

9 January, 2012

Steven John Bradbury, born in Camden, Sydney, Australia, on October 14th, 1973, is the first athlete from the South hemisphere who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games. This would be enough to reserve him a place in the history of sport. But it’s how he won the medal that make his story so special. One of the best story that Sport, which if it’s not the best reservoir of stories in the last century, at least it’s still my favourite, has ever produced. And i just (re)discovered by chance few days ago.

Bradbury sport is Short Track Speed Skating and his speciality is 1000mt. At Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games in 1994, young Bradbury is one of the contenders for a medal in this race. Instead he his eliminated in his heat after being illegally pushed by a competitor who was later disqualified This happens often in Short Track, a sport so spectacular also because contacts, incidents and disqualifying are daily bread.

Again in 1994, during a World Cup competition, another collision almost cost his life. A skater’s blade sliced through Bradbury’s right thigh and cut through to the other side: all four of his quadricep muscles had been sliced through and after he lost four litres of blood in few minutes and 111 stitches he is saved for miracle. His leg needed 18 months before it was back to full strength.

In Nagano 1998 Winter Games, Bradbury is again regarded as a medal contender in the individual events, but he was again impeded in collisions with other racers in both the 500m and 1,000m. In September 2000 he broke his neck in a training accident; another skater fell in front of him and Bradbury tried to jump over him, but instead clipped him and tripped head first into the barriers. As a result, Bradbury fractured his C4 and C5 vertebra. He spent the month and a half in a halo brace, and needed four pins to be inserted in his skull and screws and plates bolted into his back and chest. The doctors told Bradbury that he would not be able to take to the ice again.

But Bradbury wanted redemption and was determined to reach another Olympics, even though he conceded that his best days were fatally gone. In Salt Lake City 2002 he is still good enough to win his heat. However it appearead his run would end in the quarter finals, where he had to face the favourite, local hero Apolo Anton Ono, and reigning World Champion Marc Gagnon. He has no hope to beat none of the two, but Gagnon was disqualified and Bradbury, third at the finish line, can advance to the semi-finals.

In the semi-final, he must compete with four athletes all better than him. So his strategy is to cruise few meters behind them and hope they crashed: being the second oldest competitor in the field he is already happy with his result. A crash is a recurring event in Short Track, but he need three out of four to fall to advance to the final: it’s like winning the lottery. And Steven win the lottery, because at the last turn, three athletes fall! He can close his career with his first Olympic final.

In the last race, Bradbury start so slow that after 50mt he is already 15mt behind the pack. To reach an improbable bronze medal he should hope of the elimination of two contenders, but after what happened in the previous rounds, this looks highly unlikely. The race is really tight, so tight that at the last corner of the last turn the four skaters are so attached that one of them fall, the other can’t avoid the same end. Bradbury see the scene from behind and raised his arms aloft in complete disbelief and amazement, while the other where desperately trying to catch at least the second place.

It may be the most improbable and luckiest gold medal in all history of Sport competition, but I don’t think it’s fair to label Bradbury an accidental hero. “Obviously I wasn’t the fastest skater. I don’t think I’ll take the medal as the minute-and-a-half of the race I actually won. I’ll take it as the last decade of the hard slog I put in“, said the Aussie after his race, after debating few minutes if accept or not the medal, while the crowd, oblivious of his past, was booing him.

“I was the oldest bloke in the field and I knew that, skating four races back to back, I wasn’t going to have any petrol left in the tank. So there was no point in getting there and mixing it up because I was going to be in last place anyway. So (I figured) I might as well stay out of the way and be in last place and hope that some people get tangled up”. Surely, not even him was expecting everybody tangled up.

The unlikely win turned Bradbury into something of a folk hero. After his neck injury, without any support from Sponsor or National Olympic Committee, he needed to borrow $1,000 from his parents to fix his old car in order to go to training before the Olympics. He then retired as planned. In Australia he become so popular, that apart the many celebrations, included the 45-cent stamp issued by Australian Post, the expression “doing a Bradbury” entered the Australian vernacular, meaning an accidental win or unexpected or unusual success.

Today Steven John Bradbury, after having some fun as a motocross pilot, goes around giving motivational speeches. In spite of his marked tiresome Aussie accent, I would listen to him with pleasure.
Among the many teaching you can take from his history, I’d like to point on this one:

Success rarely goes to the biggest, most naturally talented or best looking person. It goes to those that want it bad enough and have a plan to get it. Steven Bradbury did both and against the odds became an Olympic champion. He wasn’t lucky – he was ready.

Are you ready to “do a Bradbury” when the opportunities present themself?

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One Comment
  1. Well spotted Cloudio,
    it´s an inspiring story indeed.

    ¨I don’t think I’ll take the medal as the minute-and-a-half of the race I actually won. I’ll take it as the last decade of the hard slog I put in¨

    great quote!

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