PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The time-clock whizzes by quickly as bobsleds rip up the breaking stretch on the Olympic Sliding Centre track, but Justin Kripps caught a glimpse of it after his fourth and final run, and saw the No. 1 by his name.
He and brakeman Alex Kopacz had done it, excitement took over and they barely had time to get out of their sleds before they were mobbed, with the German team of Francesco Friedrich and Thorsten Margis, in the lead when the Canadians started down the track, curiously among the crowd.
“They were super excited, too, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s nice, they’re really happy for us.’ We’re all good friends,” said Kripps. “Then once the mob dispersed a little bit, Thorsten was giving me a hug and he was in my ear saying, ‘It was three-hundreths, then it was two and then we tied.’ I was like, ‘We tied?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’
“Insane. It’s amazing.”
Added Kopacz: “It wasn’t until a couple of minutes later in the change-room, I said to the German guys, ‘So, I’m not understanding, did you win?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah. But we tied.’ It’s pretty insane. What are the odds?”
Astronomical, surely, that four trips down the 1.376-kilometre track could end in identical times of three minutes 16.86 seconds, but it’s not an Olympic first in the sport. That came 20 years ago at the Nagano Games, when Canadians Pierre Lueders and David MacEachern tied Italy’s Gunther Huber and Antonio Tartaglia for two-man gold.
Adding to the symmetry is that Kripps made his Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Games as part of Lueders’ four-man sled and later spent two years learning from him how to be a pilot. Lueders was even on hand Monday night as the coach of the South Korean team that finished sixth, 0.54 off the pace.
“Now, here we are tying for a gold medal. I can’t believe it,” said Kripps, who was born in Hawaii and split time between the Pacific island and Summerland, B.C., while growing up. “(Lueders’ instruction) was super-key. He taught me the fundamentals, he spent two years teaching me how to drive, he’s a legend in the sport, one of the best of all time.
“Getting that base to start with allowed me to be where I am right now.”
Lueders, in emailed comments sent to a Canadian team spokesman, said Kripps quickly distinguished himself at his school in 2010, and that within a few weeks showed that “he was naturally gifted to sit in the driver’s seat.”
“He has a calm unassuming demeanour, is exceptionally driven and leads by example and always calm under pressure, all of the characteristics needed to become an Olympic champion,” continued Lueders. “It is so special to identify someone with such talent and yet so grounded and to see them as Olympic champion I couldn’t be more proud.”
There was no shortage of drama getting there Monday night, as the event was up for grabs after three runs as five sleds were within 0.13 seconds of one another.
Kripps started the day in second spot, 0.10 seconds back of German Nico Walther but took over top spot with a third-run time of 49.09 seconds for a 0.06-second edge over Freidrich. Another German, Johannes Lochner, was 0.09 off the pace with Latvia’s Oskars Melbardis 0.12 back and Walther 0.13 off the pace.
The smallest of margins would determine the podium.
“You have to be very consistent so we maintained the same focus between (runs) three and four as one and two, there’s no difference,” said Kopacz. “Same processes and just realize, a little bit subconsciously to somehow scrounge for an extra hundredth somewhere. We made it.”
Melbardis put down the fastest final run in 49.21 seconds and settled for the bronze when first the Germans and then the Canadians came down with combined times that were 0.05 seconds better.
The tie was, “absolutely crazy,” said Jesse Lumsden, who won a silver medal at the world championships with Kripps last year and finished seventh with Nick Poloniato in Pyeongchang. “I’m just so happy we didn’t see red because they earned that medal. Four good pushes, four consistent runs – that’s how you win Olympic gold.”
The victory certainly caps what’s been a breakout season for Kripps, who won the World Cup overall title in the two-man event with podium performances in five of eight races and no finish lower than fourth.
That’s a long way from where he was in Sochi, where he and brakeman Bryan Barnett finished sixth in the two-man event after sitting fourth through the first three runs. Then in the four-man race, his sled overturned during the second heat and two of his crewmen weren’t cleared medically to compete, leading to a last-place finish.
Four years later, he’s got one gold medal in hand with the four-man race still to come.
“It’s incredible, it’s the culmination of a lot of work,” said Kripps. “Having success like this, we know that the lines we’re taking work, obviously. The four man, of course, is a new race, my sled is very different, but we’re looking to carry momentum in and be consistent.”
A comfort level with the lines on a track described by competitors as very technical could very well be an advantage.
The second corner, coming soon after the start before sleds have had much of a chance to gain momentum, is particularly tricky and one place that made or broke runs.
“You’re doing only, I don’t know 60 (km/h) there,” said Chris Spring, who along with brakeman Lascelles Brown finished 10th, “and if you have a mistake you may as well get out, pull the brakes, get out and grab a beer or something because you can’t make up that much time.”
Added Lumsden: “Kripps was money through there all four heats.”
Yet still the competition ended in a tie and Kripps wasn’t certain he had done enough as he closed out his final run.
Friedrich is the four-time defending world champion and had positioned himself to claim the first Olympic medal of his career, setting a track record of 48.96 seconds on his third run along the way.
“The times are so close there’s no way to know,” said Kripps. “I knew I was having a really good run, it was essentially almost perfect, it was the best run I put down and when I got to the bottom, I was like, ‘well, whatever the result, I’m happy with that.’ I did my best.
“Then I saw the one and basically blacked out.”
Perhaps that’s why it took a bit longer for the tie to register.
“They got it after we told them the third time,” said Friedrich.
It all added to the moment, celebrating with “two more guys who are as happy as you are,” said Kripps. “They’ve had lots of success and we’re starting too as well. They’re genuinely happy for us and we’re happy for them, as well.”