Eduardo Alvarez of the United States leads the heat as he competes in the… (Paul Gilham / Getty Images )
SOCHI, Russia — When U.S. short-track Coach Stephen Gough saw his men's 5,000-meter relay team was in, the relief poured out.
With four laps to go in Thursday's first semifinal, South Korea's Ho-Suk Lee interfered with Eddy Alvarez of the U.S., sending both skaters tumbling into the Iceberg Skating Palace pads.
The United States scrambled to finish fourth, visibly upset and shaking their heads. South Korea finished third.
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As the crash was replayed on screens over center ice, officials huddled.
Then the verdict: Because of the South Korea skater's interference, the United States would be in the final Feb. 21. Gough and team could breathe easy for a week.
"That was the race to get through," Alvarez said. "Now we've just got to let the tiger out of his cage."
The 5,000 is considered the U.S.' best chance for a short-track medal.
"The moments between the fall and the call, there was a lot of doubt and just disbelief that we didn't make it into the final," said J.R. Celski, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist.
In the other semifinal, Canada — gold medalists in three of the last four Games — also crashed. They did not advance. Without 2006 Olympic champ South Korea, the final will be without the two favorites.
"The guys who won the relay the last 12 years are not in it. That's huge," said Jordan Malone, who won bronze in this race in the 2010 Games. "We have to just make sure we're calm, cool, collected and prepared."
Chris Creveling, Alvarez and Celski advanced to Saturday's quarterfinals of the men's 1,000.
The United States was eliminated from the women's 500 after Emily Scott finished third in her quarterfinal heat.
The U.S. is still without a short-track medal in these Games.