Reporting from Richmond, Canada — By midday Thursday, reality consumed speedskater Jen Rodriguez. Relative improvement, not medals, measured success in these Olympics. In Friday's team pursuit, the U.S. women were set to face Canada, the top-ranked team in the world.
"If we can get out of the first round, we may have a chance to do something good," the four-time Olympian said as she left the ice. "It's going to be extremely tough."
Maybe it's only when the gung-ho platitudes subside that the unlikely occurs. Because in a two-hour span Friday, the U.S. men and women authored two enormous upsets -- with the men now guaranteed no less than a silver medal.
First, the women went stride-for-stride against Canada in a quarterfinal matchup and wound up edging the heavily favored hosts by five-hundredths of a second.
That was mere precursor to a seismic eruption: The U.S. men faced down the Netherlands in a semifinal matchup and led the speedskating powerhouse by as many as 1.43 seconds in the race, eventually winning by four-tenths of a second and securing a spot in a Saturday's final against Canada.
"Nobody believed in us except for us," the U.S.' Chad Hedrick said. "I told them we had a chance to come out and surprise some people. We had a chance to beat the monster, [the Netherlands'] Sven Kramer, and we're ecstatic."
The men's side at least had medals in hand. All the U.S. women had was a smattering of top-10 finishes in individual races, but now they have a spot in a semifinal against Germany on Saturday.
"It was probably one of the most fun races," Rodriguez said Friday. "We had yet to put a really good one on the ice. We skated a really good race today."
Amplifying the success was the sheer misery from the fallen powerhouses. The Dutch came apart afterward, blaming miscommunications on one another, all on the heels of Kramer's epic lane-change blunder in the men's 10,000-meter race.
"This is totally not what I expected for these Olympic Games," Kramer said.
The Canadian women, who had nabbed three medals in long-track events, were despondent.
"This is probably one of the biggest disappointments I have ever experienced in my skating career," Canada's Kristina Groves said.
Added Christine Nesbitt: "I still can't believe it. To be honest, I don't know what to say."
The U.S. team was somewhat at a loss, though more pleasantly so. Three Illinois skaters who are 23 or younger and in their first Olympics -- Glenview's Brian Hansen, Champaign's Jonathan Kuck and Wheaton's Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. -- contributed to the mammoth upsets Friday.
And all three have a chance to secure some unexpected hardware before they leave Vancouver.
"I'm definitely a little stunned," Hansen said. "My first thought was, 'Oh my God, we beat the Dutch.' My second thought was, 'Oh my God, we won a medal.' "