Three-ish weeks ago, with the winter Olympics on the horizon, the phrase “pulling a Bradbury” started getting tossed around the CONVICTS’ office. As your standard-issue American, I assumed the phrase was just another piece of inscrutable Australian slang. Turns out, though, that “pulling a Bradbury,” refers to the Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury’s victory in the 2002 Winter Olympics. For those who don’t know, Bradbury took home gold in an unorthodox way: during the semi and final Olympic heats, Bradbury hung behind the main pack of speed skaters racing around the course at over fifty-five kilometers per hour. In the semis, the forward pack of skaters crashed while Bradbury, missing the chaos, coasted along to the finals.
In the final heat, Bradbury took the same tactic. To his own surprise, it worked again: this time, the entire field crashed and Bradbury coasted to one of the strangest gold medal victories in Olympic history.
I have a vague middle school memory of Anton Ohno falling at Salt Lake City, of something happening that wasn’t supposed to. Maybe, even a snapshot, of an Australian coasting to victory with his hands up. At this point in my life, a middle school ‘memory’ like that seems suss. It could easily be the product of YouTube videos and cooked neural circuitry.
Still, I was intrigued. Bradbury is as an Olympic gold medal speed skater from a country with no ice and the phrase “pulling a Bradbury” didn’t sound overly positive…yet everyone talked about the guy in slightly mythic tones. There seemed to be a pride attached to his name. It was as though, by taking gold so unexpectedly, by pulling one of the most underdog moves of all time at Salt Lake City, by winning in a way that felt almost irreverent, Bradbury pulled something that seemed distinctly Australian.
I got in touch with Bradbury via his website, the platform he uses to promote his current ‘motivational comedy’ career. He and I exchanged emails, and set up an around the world FaceTime audio session. Lit on coffee at 6:30 AM, I called Bradbury.
Pause: I still don’t know what I was expecting from our conversation. Perhaps a story like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards’, the amateur Brit who qualified for Olympic ski jumping in 1988 and so thoroughly underperformed that he single handedly forced a rule change in favor of higher entry requirements.
Bradbury ended up teaching me a lesson about preconceptions.
Speaking with the same ironically stern-seeming lilt I’ve come to associate with Aussie dads visiting their wayward children in New York, Bradbury told me he was just back to Sydney from the States. He’d had a speaking gig in Atlanta then a snowboarding trip in Tahoe.
“I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he told me, talking about his time riding in the California mountains.
So why speed skating? Why not surfing, or skateboarding, or rugby, or any of the other adrenaline-pumped sports Aussies excel at?
“Not exactly the most popular sport in Australia,” he laughed, and explained to me that his father was a national championship speed skater in Australia, and that he first laced up his skates at age three but did not initially take to the ice. “I hated my dad for that,” Bradbury said of those early years. At age seven, however, Bradbury decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He took up skating with a grom’s passion.
At age thirteen, he saw a Japanese speed skater break the current world record he said “I’m going to do that.” He won Australia’s under thirteen speed skating championship, only in a field so small, as Bradbury said “the loser got bronze.”
Living under his parents’ roof “on a shoestring,” Bradbury received funding from the Australian Sports Commission. In Brisbane, there was a single rink. He could only get ice time at 4:00am or late at night, when the conditions were suboptimal but the ice was empty.
“My only sponsor was the local supermarket. The deal was all you could eat in store,” Bradbury told me, implying the old five-finger discount with cheeky pride. He trained day and night, and made his first Olympic appearance at age seventeen in Albertville, France, the last Olympic Games that combined both summer and winter events. Bradbury was part of the short track relay team, though as Bradbury said, he spent too much time eating the free Big Macs and playing pinball, which at age nineteen, sounds about right.
Though he didn’t get much time on the ice in ’92, by the time the ’94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer rolled around, Bradbury was on top. He trained hard for the next two years, and went into the ’94 Winter Olympics as a favorite.
He was part of the Aussie team that won bronze in the short track relay, the first team from the Southern Hemisphere to win a medal in a Winter Olympic sport. Though he was a favorite in the 500 and 1000 meter events, he took a fall and ultimately medaled in neither.
After his experience in Albertville, Bradbury realized that “you can’t get caught up in the enormity of the Olympic Village.” He described how, back home in Australia, everyone would ask “how many condoms did you go through at the Olympics?” But that wasn’t Bradbury’s focus. “The swimmers finish up the first week and go to good parties and use condoms but our event was last. We’d have the closing ceremonies then get on a flight home.”
Bradbury had his eye on the prize. Later in 1994, though, he had a violent scare in Montreal: during a crash in a World Cup event, another skater’s blade sliced the artery in his thigh. His heart rate, over two hundred beats per minute at the time, pumped the blood from his body at a dangerous rate. Bradbury survived and got back on the ice. When I asked him what kept him going, if it was the speed that he so loved about the sport. He referred again to his adrenaline habit.
“Not speed so much as adrenaline,” he said, and “racing at 55 kmh against the best skaters in the world” was about the ultimate rush. Not to mention the fact that the mid-nineties were Bradbury’s prime years. He was winning World Cup Championships, practicing day and night, staying on track for the ’98 games in Nagano. The Nagano games, however, proved to be a disappointment. The Aussie relay team didn’t medal, and Bradbury went down in falls in the 500 and 1000 meter events, unable to make the final.
Still, Bradbury persevered, continuing to train. Only 20 months before the games in Salt Lake, however, Bradbury suffered a brutal injury in training. He went headfirst into the sideboards and broke multiple vertebrae in his neck. He spent nearly two months in a halo brace.
“I looked like a human construction site,” he said. Moreover, his friends and family were encouraging him to quit. They said “You’ve been to three Olympics. You’ve got an Olympic bronze. Bronze, silver and gold World Championship medals. It’s probably time to hang your skates up.” But Bradbury wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. After recovering from his neck injury, he got back on the ice once again. Bradbury continued training for the Salt Lake Games. After the 2002 games, whether “win, lose, or draw,” Bradley planned to retire. Aware he was past his prime, Bradbury was going to give the Olympics one final go.
Going into the Salt Lake City games, Bradbury was the oldest athlete in the field. When the day of his event came, the quick succession of heats left him gassed. He spoke with his coach and determined the hang back strategy was the move. Figuring “he’d get bronze at best.”
We all know what happened next.
Bradbury, in the most unlikely way, took home gold.
“It was pandemonium in the changing room. My teammates were celebrating, the coach was celebrating. I was smiling and kind of celebrating…but on the inside, I was shitting myself. Could I accept an Olympic Gold Medal under these circumstances? In the end I took it, but not for that race. For the fourteen years of hard work in the lead up.”
I asked him if he ever watched the event replay?
“I don’t like watching myself on the podium. I look apologetic up there…and that was how I felt,” Bradbury said. But ultimately, Bradbury says, “when the Aussie national anthem began all those feelings were gone. 16,000 people in the stadium but for me it felt like I was the only person there. The playing of the national anthem was for me and me only, at least in my head.”
Bradbury says he is no longer conflicted, at all, about the medal, though he explained to me, “If I had it over again, I think I’d ask the person presenting me the medal to walk around the podium and put it around my neck without standing on the podium at all.” He also allowed that he’d rather have won the medal eight years prior, when he was the best in the world.
Strangely, it hurt a bit to hear this.
By the time our conversation wound to the Salt Lake Games, I was in unexpected awe at Bradbury. This guy had shaped his whole life around a completely unique passion. Growing up speed skating Down Under, there were few people cheering him on, few popular models to emulate, little reward, financial, social or otherwise. Bradbury’s path was not at all like the path of a pro-football player, where thousands of fans cheer one all the way to the top. He didn’t cheat, he didn’t dope, he wasn’t a one-off guy who randomly made it into the speed-skating world. Steven Bradbury was a deadly serious athlete and one of the rare humans who really, actually, achieved dreams too impossibly big for the rest of us to take seriously.
Bradbury chose a legitimate tactic on the ice in 2002, gambled, and game up big. To feel that Bradbury’s medal is somehow illegitimate would be like saying someone shouldn’t have won the Super Bowl because the other team made a foul. It’s part of the sport, and Bradbury is a pure sportsman. His near-monastic devotion to speed skating paid off in 2004, albeit unexpectedly.
Following the Olympics though, Bradbury faced a rocky comedown. He says he had to learn that “not everything is Olympic sized.” In the years after 2004, Bradbury “wrestled with some demons,” partying a bit too hard. He raced stock cars in the mid 2000’s with some success, however, with the birth of twins, he realized he needed a sustainable model for the future.
That’s when Bradbury found ‘motivational comedy.’ He organized a team of experts and built his brand, speaking at events, entertaining and imparting wisdom. “That’s where I get my adrenaline now,” he says.
Otherwise, he’s just a normal Aussie dad, dressing the kids for school, making their lunch. When I asked Bradbury whether his kids were inspired by his story, he explained, humbly that “they are proud, not sure about inspired. I have as much work ahead of me as every other parent to try to get their kids inspired.”
As for his medal Bradbury says that he takes it with him everywhere in his carry on bag. “It goes through the audience at every speaking gig I do. They get to touch it, put it on, get photos with it, etcetera. If it were in a safe, it would do nothing. People enjoy getting to hold it and draw some inspiration from it. It does some talking for me.”
Sure, Bradbury misses the sport. “I’d rather be lining up in Pyeongchang, but I can’t do that anymore,” he confessed toward the end of our conversation.
After we agreed to get a beer next time he comes through New York, Steven and I hung up the phone. Sitting in the CONVICTS office, I felt unexpectedly humbled and slightly ashamed. An hour earlier, I was in my defensively cynical New Yorker’s posture. I came into the interview projecting, unappreciative of the passion and work that got Bradbury onto the podium in Salt Lake City. I brought preconceptions to the table, and rightly felt like a jerk. I’d judged perhaps the greatest book in speed-skating’s library by its cover.
I left our conversation with a new appreciation for the phrase “pulling a Bradbury.” Rather than the snarky expression I thought it to be, “pulling a Bradbury” now seemed to imply the deep virtues of sportsmanship: hustling after dreams, sweating through practice when no one’s watching, taking victory and defeat with grace, and ultimately, persevering.
We could all pull more Bradburys.
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