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Gold? Bronze? Olympic “success” depends on the athlete (among other things)

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Steven Holcomb’s bronze-medal celebration Monday night brought to mind a vivid memory — his gold-medal celebration from four years ago.

“About the same,” Holcomb said of a boisterous fist-pumping, man-hugging reaction. “We didn’t even make it to the finish, and we were getting hounded by our teammates.”

Gold in one event one year. Bronze in another event four years later. The medals were different, but the celebrations were about the same.

Both were incredible achievements by Holcomb, who has now won Olympic and world medals in both the two- and four-man competitions. He is a trailblazer.

VIDEO: Watch Team USA’s bronze-medal run

He’s also a reminder that the definition of success at an Olympics is layered and largely brought on by subjective perception and expectation. The medal standings are growing with importance as the Games go through the final week.

What will make for a “successful” Olympics for the U.S.?

  • Winning more medals than Vancouver, when Americans took 37 of them, the most ever for one nation at a Winter Games?
  • Winning the overall medal count for the first time at a non-North American Winter Games?

It’s a nuanced question. First, let’s look at Holcomb.

  • He held onto bronze by .03 of a second after the fourth and final run in teeth-chattering conditions at the Sanki Sliding Center.
  • Holcomb, with brakeman Steve Langton, ended a 62-year U.S. Bobsled drought for the second straight Olympics.
  • In 2010, he became the first American to win four-man gold since 1948.
  • In 2014, he became the first American to win a two-man medal of any color since 1952.
  • Not only is Holcomb the reigning Olympic four-man champion, he also entered these Games as the season-long World Cup champion in the two-man.

“I don’t have any Olympic medals in two-man, so to finally come away with a bronze, I’ll take gold, silver, bronze,” he said. “We were just here to win a medal. I know we were the gold-medal favorites coming in.”

Pause right there. Gold-medal favorites. The Associated Press and Infostrada tapped Holcomb for two-man gold. Sports Illustrated picked him for silver.

WATCH: Holcomb, Langton make U.S. history in bobsled

Olympic medal predictions don’t have high success rates, but Holcomb knew the perception was there that he had a shot at gold.

Holcomb clarified, saying he didn’t consider himself the gold-medal favorite because talented Russian Aleksandr Zubkov had a home-track advantage, enough of an edge to make up for the fact he ranked well behind Holcomb in the World Cup standings.

In bobsled, track experience is critical. Holcomb dominates in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, where he’s taken more runs than a guy like Zubkov. His success rate outside North America is not as great.

So for Holcomb to win a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics, beating another Russian sled by .03 for that last medal, that’s worthy of celebration.

The 62-year drought? As is equated so often in sports, Holcomb wasn’t around for most of that time. But it speaks to how tough it was for the U.S. to break through in a sport long dominated by European nations.

Perception and reaction has varied across sports and athletes in Sochi. The U.S. speed skaters haven’t performed to expectations. Snowboarders and skiers have surprised.

Shaun White was a gold-medal favorite and finished fourth. Disappointment.

Hannah Kearney was a gold-medal favorite and won bronze, an upset she handled with grace (as did White). Bode Miller looked strong in training and then finished eighth in the downhill. He rebounded and tied for an emotional bronze in the super-G.

If the U.S. women’s hockey team wins silver, you can bet players will shed tears, and they won’t be of joy. How will people react if Ted Ligety wins silver in the giant slalom? If Mikaela Shiffrin wins silver in the slalom? How will Ligety and Shiffrin react?

Then there’s Dutch speed skater Koen Verweij.

The Dutch speed skaters have been seen as the epitome of dominance in Sochi, winning 16 medals. Here’s what their star, Sven Kramer, said Monday about Verweij, who missed gold by .003 of a second in the 1500m.

“What annoys me is that people blame him for not being happy with the silver,” Kramer said. “It’s good that he was unhappy. It’s top sport, and top sport is about winning.”

All medal reactions are not equal.

The U.S. won two medals on Monday to bring its total to 18 for the Olympics. There’s almost no chance it tops the 37 from Vancouver, even with more events at these Olympics than four years ago.

At the same time, it is tied with Russia for the overall medal lead. It is one medal ahead of the Netherlands and three medals ahead of Canada and Norway. The U.S. also could win a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics, which it has never done. (OK, so that’s a novelty stat.)

But with six days left of competition, the U.S. is in the running to win the overall medal count for the first time at a Winter Olympics held outside North America.

What will be a success? It’s hard to say, but Holcomb seemed pretty thrilled to contribute to the U.S. tally Monday night.

“Obviously, everybody here wants to win,” he said. “We’re happy to be in that hunt.”

Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi lead U.S. Olympic marathon team

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Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi shared nothing in marathon running before the U.S. Olympic trials on Saturday, but the two men from vastly different backgrounds were together, alone, leading the race with five miles left.

Rupp, 29, pulled away to win in 2:11:12 on the streets of Los Angeles. The former Oregon Catholic high school prodigy became the first American to make an Olympic marathon team in his 26.2-mile debut since 1968.

Keflezighi, a 40-year-old born in war-torn Eritrea who moved to the U.S. in 1987, crossed the finish line 68 seconds later in second place. He will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time in Rio in August.

Rupp and Keflezighi, the only U.S. men to make an Olympic podium in distances longer than 1500m since 1984, were so close to each other in their three-mile leading stretch that their Olympic silver medals could have clanked against each other had they been wearing them.

Keflezighi, in his 23rd marathon and in front of Rupp at the time, didn’t take kindly to the six-inches-taller marathon rookie breathing on him. He let Rupp know about it on the streets of LA.

“It’s not a track, the road is open,” Keflezighi recalled in a press conference, shortly before exchanging a laughter-inducing glance with Rupp, who fittingly walked in to sit on a stool to Keflezighi’s immediate right mid-answer. “It was not a very friendly conversation.”

Now Rupp and Keflezighi are U.S. Olympic marathon teammates. Along with Jared Ward, who finished third Saturday, 1:47 behind Rupp, to make his first Olympics.

Full results are here.

In the women’s race, Amy CraggDesi Linden and Shalane Flanagan were the top three, all returning to the Olympics, with Flanagan collapsing at the finish line. Full recap here.

Rupp and Keflezighi broke away on their own around the 20th mile. Rupp then dropped Keflezighi in the 23rd mile. The reigning Olympic 10,000m silver medalist fist pumped crossing the finish line.

“It was a bit of a change running the marathon, but there’s no bigger honor than being able to represent your country at the Olympics,” Rupp then told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Dathan Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian and a pre-race favorite with Keflezighi and Rupp, dropped out of the race around mile 20 in the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials of all time. The temperature at the men’s start at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees.

The Rio Olympic men’s marathon will be on Aug. 21, the final day of the Games. Keflezighi’s 2004 silver is the only U.S. men’s marathon medal since Frank Shorter took gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.

Rupp has said he prefers the 10,000m and might not race the marathon at the Olympics. If he doesn’t, the fourth-place trials finisher, Luke Puskedra, will move onto the team.

“I think [Rupp] is a 2:05 [marathon] guy, someday,” Rupp’s coach, three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, told media after Saturday’s race. (The fastest American marathoner of all time, Ryan Hall, clocked a best of 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon.)

Rupp could contest two races in Rio, the 10,000m (Aug. 13 final) and the marathon, or the 10,000m and the 5000m (Aug. 20). Rupp finished seventh in the 5000m in London.

“I would say that the 10k is still my primary focus,” said Rupp, who would have to make the Olympic track team at those trials in Eugene, Ore., from July 1-10, in a USATF interview published Jan. 28. “Really, it just comes down to what I think I have a better chance in as a second event, whether that’s the 5k or the marathon.”

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Amy Cragg wins marathon trials; Shalane Flanagan collapses at finish

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No doubt Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan bonded as training partners en route to the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, escaping a black bear the clearest example.

They couldn’t have been closer after finishing first and third to make the Olympic team Saturday.

Flanagan collapsed in Cragg’s arms two strides after the finish line at the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials ever in Los Angeles. She was then helped into a wheelchair.

Cragg won the race in 2:28:20, redeeming after she finished fourth to miss the team by one spot at the 2012 trials. Flanagan came in third Saturday to make her fourth Olympic team, 25 seconds behind second-place Desi Linden and 58 seconds behind Cragg.

Full results are here.

Cragg, 32, waited for Flanagan at the finish line, holding an American flag, hugging Flanagan and then, suddenly, keeping the 2008 Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist from falling onto the pavement.

Flanagan, the 2012 trials winner and a pre-race favorite, said there was a point in the 26.2 miles where she thought she was “done.”

Cragg talked her through it. They spent most of the final half of the race alone in the lead.

“Sweet baby Jesus, I’m so thankful for [Cragg],” Flanagan, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner ever, said minutes after finishing, with an ice pack over her shoulders, clutching a water bottle in her right hand and holding onto Cragg’s right shoulder with her left hand.

Cragg held up Flanagan during the interview and then helped her back into the wheelchair.

The temperature at the start of the men’s race at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees, hottest ever at a marathon trials (the first trials were in 1968). The women began 16 minutes later.

Cragg finished fourth at the 2012 marathon trials, then made that Olympic team in the 10,000m on the track and finished 11th in London in her Olympic debut. She moved from Providence, R.I., to Portland, Ore., in the fall to join Flanagan’s training group.

“Finishing fourth, looking back on it now, was so good for me,” Cragg told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “It made me more determined than ever as an athlete. I’ve worked really hard the last four years, basically, to move up one spot.

“I just knew, training with Shalane, would give me all the confidence I need.”

Cragg dropped Flanagan in the final two miles. Before that, she said she asked Flanagan if she was OK. Flanagan replied, no, I’m not.

“She seemed like she was even struggling a little bit just to say that,” Cragg said. “Before the last water stop, I kind of looked at her, and she was turning bright red. I knew the heat was getting to her. I told her, I’m going to get you a water bottle, dump the whole thing on your head.”

Linden, arguably the pre-race co-favorite with Flanagan, repeated her 2012 trials finish of second place, surging in the final mile past Flanagan.

At the London Olympics, Linden pulled out 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

“It’s been this Sisyphean task where I get to the top, and then the rock crumbles down,” Linden said Saturday. “I want to do it better this time.”

Two-time Olympian Kara Goucher was fourth. She plans to compete at the track trials in July in Eugene, Ore., to go for Rio.

Goucher finished 65 seconds behind Flanagan, her former training partner, and said she missed workouts last week while sick. The 37-year-old said she may have picked up an illness from her 5-year-old son, Colt.

“I kept asking myself if I was doing all that I could, and I was,” Goucher told media, in tears. “They were just better. … I didn’t fight this hard to just fold right now, so yeah, I’ll be trying to make the 10k team [at track trials in July].”

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