American slider John Daly reacts after his final skeleton run on Saturday… (Alex Livesey / Getty Images )
SOCHI, Russia — Locked in a battle for Olympic bronze, best friends Matt Antoine and John Daly knew one of them would leave disappointed.
The American skeleton racers, however, never could have imagined the depth of that disappointment.
Unable to catch the first- and second-place leaders, Antoine and Daly had engaged in a seesaw battle for third place during the first three heats at the Sanki Sliding Center. At the start of the final run Saturday, Daly sat in fourth, just four-hundredths of a second behind his teammate.
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As he sprinted down the track, Daly pushed too hard and his sled slipped out from under the start grooves in the ice. He made a desperate, awkward leap on to the sled, then took the metaphorically longest ride of this life.
For the next 58.54 seconds, he slid down the hill knowing his medal aspirations had ended. After starting the day in third place, the unusual mistake would leave him 15th.
"I just wanted come across the line … and be able to look at my family here who have been waiting. And hold up my American flag. And get my Olympic moment," he said, biting his lip to fight back tears. "But I messed up."
Antoine didn't see his friend's mistake, but he could hear the groans from the crowd and could see the spot where Daly's blades had slipped out from the grooves. He wouldn't learn what happened until he finished his own medal-winning slide.
''My heart goes out to John," Antoine said. "For 10 years we've pushed each other in this sport. Neither of us would be here if it weren't for the other."
Antoine's bronze makes the United States the first country to complete the medal set in men's skeleton, having now won gold, silver and bronze in the event.
"I'm still trying to process it all," said Antoine, who failed to make the Olympic team in 2010 and stuck around for another turn. "This is definitely the best moment of my life."
Russia's Alexander Tretiakov took gold with four blistering runs that befit a reigning world champion. Martins Dukurs of Latvia — who won six of eight World Cup races this season — finished second.
As medalists celebrated their victory during a flower ceremony held at the track, Daly answered questions about his costly mistake. He took deep breaths before giving answers, speaking slowly in an effort to stop his tears.
He said the same thing again and again: If Daly couldn't stand on the podium, he wanted Antoine to.
"It's tears of sadness but it's also tears of joy, because a guy I grew up with, a guy I slid with my entire career, my whole life, won a medal," he said. "I'm proud of him."