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Originally published February 20, 2010 at 9:39 PM | Page modified February 21, 2010 at 4:44 PM

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Steve Kelley

U.S. emerges as Winter Olympics behemoth

Shani Davis strained into the stretch, the time clock to his left rapidly becoming his mortal enemy.

Seattle Times staff columnist

RICHMOND, B.C. — Shani Davis strained into the stretch, the time clock to his left rapidly becoming his mortal enemy.

Fifty final meters, arms swinging and pushing him toward the finish, just Davis against the clock.

The clock won.

Mark Tuitert of The Netherlands got the long-track 1,500-meter speedskating gold, Davis the silver.

And it was the disappointment that was so surprising. After the race, Davis glided around the track, shaking his head. Moments later he walked expressionless to the medal podium and waved sadly to the crowd.

"I couldn't man up and do it," Davis said. "I put my heart, I put my soul, I put everything I had into the race, left everything out on the track, but in the end I wasn't strong enough. I came up half a second short of a gold medal, and I will be honest, it hurt."

There was disappointment in silver Saturday. That's how successful the United States has been in the first half of the 2010 Games.

Back in the day, the Winter Olympics were the home to people named Lars and Sven, Inge and Ulga, or so it seemed.

In the days of the Cold War, the Winter Olympics were practically frigid for the United States. The Soviet Union's machine rolled like a Zamboni over U.S. medal hopes. And whatever medals the Soviets didn't win, the Scandinavians seemed to take.

Let's face it, in the heart of basketball season, only the most devoted ring heads cared about ski jumping or biathlon. Almost nobody knew what the nordic combined meant.

Sure, the U.S. had its miracle on ice.

It has had its stars, but they've been spread over many different Olympics. They've never been bunched in one Games like this.

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Now, as we turn the corner and head into the final week of the 2010 Games, something that was unimaginable back in the days of ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, is happening to the United States this winter.

It is leading the medal count. Maybe it doesn't own the podium, but with a week to go, it has a signed a lease and has an option to buy.

The U.S. finished Saturday's competition with 23 medals — six gold, seven silver and 10 bronze medals.

It's heavy-medal mania in British Columbia.

Red, white and blue. Gold, silver and bronze.

Germany, which should make a run for first in the second week, was second in the medal race with 14, four gold.

It has been a most memorable first half of the Winter Olympics for the United States.

Last Wednesday the U. S. had its best day in Winter Olympic history, winning six medals, including gold from the halfpipe (Shaun White), the downhill (Lindsey Vonn) and 1,000-meter long-track speedskating (Davis).

The next night, Evan Lysacek's spinning and stepping beat Russian Evgeni Pluschenko's jumping. Lysacek won the United States' first men's figure skating gold since Brian Boitano in 1988.

This winter, the Olympics aren't merely some quadrennial curiosity. The U.S. has stars as bright as summer.

Apolo Ohno, White, Vonn, Davis, Lysacek. Who do these athletes think they are, Michael Phelps?

To be honest, I'm not that excited about medal counts. As Brian McKeever — the legally blind Canadian cross-country skier and the first athlete to compete in both the Paralympics and Winter Olympics — reminds us, there is much more to the Games than owning the podium.

But the emergence of the United States in the Winter Olympics should be acknowledged in the same way the New York Yankees' dominance in baseball, or Connecticut's unstoppable run in women's basketball is recognized.

Is this the beginning of an American winter dynasty?

The U.S. has won seven alpine medals, including two each from Vonn, Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller. It won four of the six halfpipe medals.

It is winning in the new sports, the sexier, X-ier-looking sports like short-track, halfpipe and moguls. Its women's hockey team is playing in Monday's semifinal.

But the U.S. also is winning medals in the kind of sports that are so far off ESPN's radar, they might as well exist only in Norway and on Mars.

An exhausted Johnny Spillane became the first U.S. athlete to win a medal in nordic combined, a silver. His was the third medal ever won by the U.S in a nordic event.

The U.S. hasn't won the Winter Olympic medal count since 1932 in Lake Placid, in the dark days before the NBC peacock. It won its most medals, 34, eight years ago in Salt Lake City.

Now it is poised to do something historic.

Surprisingly, the podium is available.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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