Petra Majdic’s Olympic dreams flew off a cliff this morning and landed with a hard thump.
“My first thought was that our Olympic Games are over,” says Ivan Hubac, her coach for the past four years, who saw the Slovenian cross-country star skid off an icy corner of today’s sprint course just moments before the race began.
But then with a faith as solid as that of "The Little Prince" – a favorite book of hers – she rallied back, gaining strength with each heat to win Slovenia’s first-ever medal in the sport.
“What happened today was a miracle,” says Hubac.
History will note that Majdic’s medal was bronze. But for the athletes and coaches from any number of countries who rose above national boundaries to urge her on and celebrate her victory, it was more.
Majdic, who has not taken a vacation in three years in order to be 100 percent prepared for these Games, went even further.
“This is not only gold,” she said. “It is gold with little diamonds in it.”
A fall into a gulley
A fan of the movies “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million-dollar Baby,” Majdic showed her own mettle this morning after tumbling straight down into a gulley on the side of the trail and disappearing. She broke both poles and one ski in the crash, which wasn’t the only one of the day on a course that had turned rock-hard with cold temperatures overnight. After two men climbed down to prop her up, she emerged with her hat dangling from her ponytail and her hand gripping her lower back in pain.
Hubac and the rest of her support team wanted to send her to the emergency room, but she – knowing this would probably be her last Olympics – resisted, yelling at them that she wanted to race.
Officials let her start the qualifying round last, giving her a little time to recover. She was nearly hysterical after the crash, but her team told her that since she had no chance of medaling, she could just go out and see how she felt. If it was too painful after the first 100 meters, she could drop out.
Instead, she skied a gutsy round – albeit not the fluid, strong strides that the 5’10” skier is known for on the World Cup. With a 19th-place time, she made the top-30 cut-off for qualifying and advanced to the quarterfinals.
With each round, she got stronger – though each time she collapsed in pain at the finish line and had to be helped up.
But in the final, the old Petra reappeared on the final hill and she managed to nip Swede Anna Olsson in the homestretch in front of an exuberant crowd. She later said spectators and even coaches from all nations were cheering her on.
Polish fans had been looking for silver medalist Justyna Kowalczyk to win the country’s first gold in a winter Olympic sport. Americans, meanwhile, had been hoping that Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, could pull out a medal-winning performance after her historic silver at World Championships last year, but she got edged out in a tight semi-final and finished eighth.
Still, her dad says, it was great to see all the athletes supporting each other.
“I really love that part of this – how well all the racers get along from all the countries,” says Ronn Randall, sporting a pink “Go Kikki” hat.
Sportswoman of the year at home
But today was Majdic’s day.
Back home in Slovenia, where her countrymen have voted her sportswoman of the year for three of the past four years, Majdic’s historic victory will mean much to a population that’s seen her face on commercials for home appliances and other products made by her sponsors.
“It means hope, and it means you can see what a person’s mind can do,” says Hubac.
It also shows what a team can do. Each member of her support team – four of whom, including himself, are from Slovakia – was critical today. One reminded her before the qualifying round of many examples in history where athletes had rallied back after similar mishaps. “I’m glad our whole team was here because we needed it,” said Hubac.
Majdic said she would not try to race again until the women’s 30 km on Feb. 26. But when she steps back on the race course, be ready.
“She’s maybe in the best shape in her life,” says Hubac. “When she is better again, she will show her power.”
Christa trained for the Olympics between 1997 and 2002 in cross-country skiing. Follow her on Twitter.