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Posted: Feb 28, 7:55p ET | Updated: Mar 8, 9:55a ET

U.S. reaches Winter Olympics peak

Investment pays off as American athletes post record medal total
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VANCOUVER -- After she won silver in the 1,000-meter race late in these 2010 Vancouver Games, short-track speedskater Katherine Reutter met the press with an American flag draped over her light-blue warm-up jacket.

The flag wasn't going anywhere and neither was the big smile on her face.

"I have a lot of pride to have done this for my country," she said. "The USA can honestly say we went to the Olympics and we came back victorious."

The 2010 U.S. Olympic team put on a performance for the history books. When they gave out the final medals Sunday, the Americans -- for the first time since the 1932 Games in Lake Placid -- stood atop the overall medals table, with 37.

That made for an Olympic record, topping the 36 Germany won in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

The previous American best: 34, in Salt Lake.

The previous American best at a non-domestic Games: 25, in Torino in 2006.

"Throughout these Games, I've been watching all of the U.S. athletes do so well and it's been so cool to watch the American flag go up on the podium so many times," alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, a two-time Vancouver Games medalist, said.

Short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno, who won three 2010 medals, boosting his career total to eight, an American Winter Games best, said, "We compete for ourselves, we compete for our family and for our sport. But ultimately the United States is sending its absolute best to go compete against the rest of the world and I think more important is how we go out there and how we stand up as warriors.

"To know that this is the biggest medal haul ever is pretty amazing."

Canada topped the gold-medal count, with 14, the Canadians boosted by a run of golds late in the Games in events such as men's parallel giant slalom in snowboarding and relays in short-track and long-form speedskating.

The Canadians had long sought to top the overall count, their team underwritten to the tune of about $100 million by an audacious program called "Own the Podium."

It didn't pan out. Senior Canadian officials acknowledged about 10 days into the Vancouver Games that the Canadian performance would fall short of the much-proclaimed goal amid the disclosure that various government entities that had contributed funding were unlikely to keep the dollars going.

Even so, as International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge noted, whoever tops the gold count gets bragging rights of a sort. The previous Winter Games record for gold medals won by a host country: 10 (Norway in 1994 and the United States in 2002).

Rogge, in an interview done before the final medal tallies were in, said, "If the U.S. comes in first in the overall count, they will claim victory. That will be good for them. And that will be good for the Olympic movement, no doubt about it," because an upswing in American interest in the Olympics means business, and in two ways.

First, such an uptick might well spur corporate interest in supporting the IOC and the several other pieces of the Olympic movement. Second, it affords the IOC leverage in negotiating with U.S. broadcasters for the rights fees to the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games; those negotiations are widely expected to be undertaken within the next 18 months.

The U.S. medal count also underscores a major shift across the Olympic sports landscape that has been 22 years in the making: The United States, which traditionally has been at or near the top of the Summer Games medals charts, is now a Winter Games power as well.

In Calgary in 1988, the U.S. team won a grand total of six medals. Here, the Americans won six medals on the first Wednesday of the Games.

The reasons for the surge are easy to explain: Mostly, it's time and money. And then, once the action got under way in and around Vancouver -- momentum.

The USOC, and in particular for the past three editions of the Winter Games, has ramped up Winter Games funding levels. Indeed, for this four-year Olympic cycle, the USOC upped its support to about $55 million, roughly 50 percent over what it spent on Salt Lake and Torino.

A generation in from the Calgary disaster, the U.S. has in several sports developed talent, and depth, across the board. In Nordic combined, for instance, Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick -- with 13 Olympic Games among them -- combined in Vancouver for four medals, including Demong's gold in what's called the large-hill event.

In addition, the Salt Lake Games left a physical legacy -- ski jumps and other venues, in particular in Park City, Utah -- on which to train.

Also in Park City, the ski team has built its own facility, the Center of Excellence, a model for sports -- Olympic or otherwise -- in the United States. Of the 37 American medals, 21 are ski and snowboard medals, the ski team finally and emphatically living up to its avowed goal, for years much maligned elsewhere, of being "best in the world."

In alpine skiing alone, Bode Miller would win three medals, one gold; Vonn, two; Julia Mancuso, two; and Andrew Weibrecht, one. Those eight doubled the next-best alpine effort, Norway (all four by Norwegian men) and Austria (by Austrian women).

"I may not have had the best Olympics," Ted Ligety, the 2006 Torino gold medalist in the combined posted to his Twitter feed after being shut out of the medals in Vancouver, "but at [least] I won as many medals as the Austrian men's alpine team."

The American momentum got under way the very first day of competition, Saturday the 13th, with Hannah Kearney winning gold and Shannon Bahrke bronze in moguls.

"To get to this level, you've got to have performance across the board. And we've had it," said Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. " The women, the moguls skiers -- that shifted it into high gear with the gold and bronze in literally the first event. It went from there."

While the U.S. success is obvious, where American authorities go from here -- already looking ahead now to Sochi and the 2014 Winter Games -- is equally plain.

The American team won no medals in cross-country skiing, biathlon, ski jumping, luge, skeleton or curling. Plus, the women's figure-skating program is at an ebb -- no American medalists in arguably the Games' marquee event for the first time since 1964.

"We certainly have work to do," Mike English, the USOC's chief of sport performance, said, adding a moment later, "We'll continue to refine the model that we have in place."

For now, though, the parades have already begun -- Weibrecht, for instance, already back home in Lake Placid, N.Y., before the Games even closed, riding down Main Street in a fire truck, holding up his bronze medal for all to see.

Time, too, for quieter moments -- for all that led to those medals to be paid back with thank-you upon thank-you. And, sometimes, more.

"My parents sacrificed so much," Reutter said. "I was really hoping to have a good result at this because whatever money the USOC pays me after this -- the foundation of our house is starting to fall apart.

"I firmly believe that they have built the foundation of my career and who I am as a person. And every bit of money I make will be going toward all the things that they sacrificed to get me here.

 

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