Matt Antoine, once cut from a skeleton-training school for not being good enough, has learned a thing or two over the years.
On Saturday, he learned another—what it’s like to be an Olympic medalist.
Antoine, 28, won the bronze medal in skeleton at the Sanki Sliding Center outside Sochi, holding off a charging Latvian Thomass Dukurs and managing to avoid the fate of friend and teammate John Daly, whose botched start saw him drop from medal contention in the run before Antoine’s.
"It's unbelievable," Antoine told the U.S. skeleton federation in a press release from the Olympics. "It's going to take some time to process it for sure, but it's the greatest moment of my life without a doubt. I've been preparing for this moment, but it's still just unreal right now."
Aleksandr Tretiyakov, nicknamed the “Russian Rocket,” won with a four-run time of 3 minutes, 44.29 seconds. Thomass’ younger brother, pre-race favorite Martins Dukurs, took silver in 3:45.10.
Antoine, who had alternated third and fourth spots with Daly through the first three heats, was well off the pace in 3:47.26. Daly, expected to duke it out with Antoine for bronze in a dramatic final heat, finished a crushing 15th in 3:49.11.
"My heart really goes out to John for the way that ended for him," Antoine said to the federation. "We've pushed each other to be where we are for our entire career, and I don't think either one of us would be where we are today, contending for a medal, if we hadn't been supporting one another along the way."
The medal is the second in skeleton for the U.S. team at the Sochi Games, with Noelle Pikus-Pace winning silver on Friday.
While American athletes are faltering in usually rich Olympic sports like speedskating and Alpine skiing, the sliding sports are up to the three medals and counting, with Erin Hamlin’s luge bronze.
American sleds are fast in bobsled, with at least one or two medals expected there.
But one was enough for Antoine’s hometown of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where a small group got up early, braving a morning temperature of 1 degree to watch Antoine’s race, broadcast from the mountains outside Sochi, Russia, on NBC’s live feed at local tavern Jim’s Bar.
“I can’t even believe it, I am so excited,” said Bridget Nichols, a Prairie High School classmate of Antoine’s, told Bleacher Report when reached by phone at Jim’s. “That’s why I couldn’t talk to you right away. I was watching the flower ceremony.”
Nichols said about 15 friends watched Antoine’s final run at the bar. The result, she said, brought huge cheers from the small group. She had never known anyone on an Olympic team, much less a friend.
“It’s exciting to see one of our own, from Prairie du Chien, there, at the Olympics,” she said. “I looked around and there were tears in people’s eyes.”
She said she wasn’t sure if anyone from town had ever made an Olympic team and that Antoine was an unexpected Olympian, considering he wasn’t all that athletic in high school. Nichols said she likes him because he’s always been down-to-earth, and she doesn’t expect that to change.
“He’s actually quiet inside, so to see him on the huge stage at the Olympics is pretty cool," Nichols said, adding Antoine told her he’ll be back in town in March.
“I told Matt, when he made it on the Olympic team, if he would let me, that I’d like to have a big party for him,” Nichols said. “I’m sure now that he’s won a bronze medal, the city will have plans for him when he comes back.”
Skeleton’s two medals are the first won by the U.S. since Team USA took three in 2002, when the event returned to the Olympics after a long hiatus. Jimmy Shea and Tristan Gale swept gold, and Lea Anne Parsley won silver.
"A medal for the U.S. is a medal for the U.S.," said Daly, seeking the preemptive silver lining before a day in which one of them was likely to leave Sochi empty-handed. "This program has struggled for a little bit just because we were young. It had nothing to do with equipment or anything like that. We were just young athletes. Now we have the equipment side, we have the coaching side and it's kind of our time."
It was Shea’s dramatic victory in 2002—in honor of his deceased Olympic champion grandfather, Jack—that drew both Antoine and Daly to skeleton in the first place. Antoine had watched the race and was enthralled by it.
Later that year, while in high school, he attended a skeleton school in Lake Placid, N.Y. at age 17, but was sent home after being told he didn’t have the skill.
So Antoine poured his energies into high school track, with the mission of making himself a faster athlete. Skeleton runs usually start with a 60-meter sprint before racers flop, belly down, on the sled.
The next year, he returned to Lake Placid, and eventually worked his way into the sport. He was named skeleton’s top slider before the 2010 Olympic season, practically a lock for Vancouver.
But he suffered another heartbreak, missing the team by one spot. It was Daly—who had started in the sport at the same time as Antoine—and 2014 Olympic teammate Kyle Tress who beat Antoine for the berth and finished 17th.
This time, Antoine, nicknamed “Cheese” in reference to his home state, came into his first Games No. 3 in World Cup standings.
Antoine and Daly, who lived on a shoestring budget and traveled together while advancing in the skeleton ranks, expected to be fighting for the lone bronze.
But after all those years together, it all fell apart in a matter of seconds.
Daly, fourth-last to slide, dived onto his sled during his start. But one of his runners slid from the grooved track and skittered sideways, and his legs flailed as the sled banged on the track walls.
Daly, 28, from Smithtown, N.Y., managed to stabilize the sled and had a relatively clean run, but the damage was done. After he crossed the finish, Daly was laying on his sled, holding his helmeted head in his hands in anguish.
Daly had this to say after the race, according to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt:
I went for it. I basically gave it my all. It popped out. There's no one to blame but me. It's all on my shoulders. But I do wish I had a second chance at that run, and I know I could've done well. It was the most fun I've had in my career until that fourth run, and I knew USA was going to bring home a medal. I just wish it went down differently. I wish I gave myself a shot the last run. I feel like I didn't.
I would have rather come across the line in first and just be able to look at my family that's been waiting and hold up my American flag and get my Olympic moment. I messed up and didn't get it. I guess I'll have to wait four more years.
That left it to Antoine to secure a place for the United States on the podium.