There were moments in Sochi that must have made the stomach of U.S. skeleton coach Tuffy Latour feel like it had just been subjected to the G-force of that icy track.
The athletes in the charge of the Linton High School graduate produced both medals and misery. The women’s team saw Noelle Pikus-Pace claim silver, while Katie Uhlaender finished just 0.04 seconds out of bronze. The men celebrated a bronze from Matthew Antoine, while another medal hopeful, John Daley, had his sled pop out of the grooves in the ice at the start of his final run, resulting in a run of 58.54 — more than 1.5 seconds (the equivalent of an eternity in sliding sports) slower than any of his first three runs.
“All I could think of each time it happened was ABC Sports, the “Wide World of Sports,” ‘The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,’ ” Latour said. “It was hard, because you were so happy on one side, and on the other side, you’re just broken up about the athlete finishing just that short of a medal.
“It’s the Olympic Games, and anything can happen. Katie and John came so close to medaling, it just shows how strong our U.S. skeleton program is. There’s only three medals, and there’s a lot of talented athletes out there. I’m very proud of all the athletes and how they performed at the Games.”
Latour is home in Saranac Lake after the long trip from Russia, and took a moment last week to reflect on the Games.
Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi were the focus of a lot of negative press regarding unfinished hotels in the days before the opening ceremony, and throughout the Games as the euthanasia of the ever-present stray dogs pulled on American heart strings.
Even before the Games, the specter of possible terrorist attacks loomed. Latour said, though, the Russians did a fine job of putting on a top-class event.
“As we got on the ground in Sochi and started walking around and seeing things, it was all over-hyped,” he said of the terrorism worry. “The Games were absolutely spectacular. Russia did a very good job.
“At first, there were a few hiccups with the transportation, but it was more timing than anything. Two or three days into the Games, everything was running smooth. We really didn’t have any issues at all. Building, basically, a city out of nothing, I thought the Russians did a great job and presented a great Games to all the Olympic athletes and coaches and spectators.”
The sliding sports are in Latour’s blood. His father, also named Tuffield, Tuffy for short, was a bobsledder in the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. He died three years before his namesake grandson was born, but while serving in the Air Force at a base in Germany in 1990, Tuffy saw a newspaper ad asking for active-duty airmen to try out for a bobsled team, and he decided to try it out.
He has had a successful career as a coach, guiding the U.S. women’s team to its first-ever bobsled gold in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. He also led that team to silvers in the 2000 and 2001 World Championships.
Latour skippered the men’s bobsledders to a silver in four-man at the 2003 World Championships and a bronze in four-man at the 2004 World Championships.
Latour went to the Vancouver Games in 2010 in charge of the Canadian bobsled teams, guiding the women’s bobsledders to gold and silver medals and the men to a bronze in four-man competition.
He took the job with the U.S. skeleton team later in 2010, not because of how good the team was, but because of how good he thought it could become.
“There was a ton of potential within the program,” he said. “It’s exciting to try to rebuild, to try to push a program and try to change the mindset of a program. That’s what I tried to do with the skeleton team. It took a couple years to get them to start to think about striving for excellence. By the time we got to the Games, everybody was firing on all cylinders, and we turned five individuals into a team.”
Latour said he was thrilled for his medalists. Pikus-Pace wasn’t feeling 100 percent coming into the Games, he said, but she slid the best she could and claimed silver. The men’s competition was basically a fight for third as Russian Alexander Tretjyakov and Latvian Martins Dukurs were going quite a bit faster than everyone else. Antoine won that race for bronze after taking a risk between the first and second days by switching the runners on his sled.
Being happy for them was the easy part of those days, though. Then there was the job of consoling Daley and Uhlaender.
“You tell them they did a great job, but at the end of the day, you just sit there and listen to them,” Latour said. “You really can’t say a lot. You give them a hug, you tell them you’re proud of them. But they just want to sit there and talk through it, and you try to console them and tell them how proud you are. There’s nothing you can really say to make them feel better.”
Even with that emotional roller coaster, Latour ranks these Games favorably among those he has experienced, placing them ahead of the 2006 event in Turin, which had its own infrastructure challenges. The 2002 Games rate at the top, obviously, at home in the U.S. and right after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Vancouver Games, coaching for the Canadians, also were special. But, he said, Sochi didn’t disappoint.
“This was right up there,” he said. “It was a great Olympic Games. The Russians did a fantastic job. They put on a great show, and they built some great facilities.”