KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — One year after a giant meteor streaked across Russia's sky, Alexander Tretiakov flashed by.
Accelerating down his home track lined from top to bottom with flag-waving, chanting countrymen, Tretiakov won the Olympic gold medal in men's skeleton on Saturday night, pulling away from the world's top sliders who were no match for his breakneck speed and precise driving.
Tretiakov completed four trips down the Sanki Sliding Center track in 3 minutes, 44.29 seconds, easily beating Latvia's Martins Dukurs (3:45.10), who settled for silver again after having gold slip from his hands four years ago in Vancouver.
Matt Antoine won the bronze, the first skeleton medal for an American man since Jimmy Shea's gold in 2002. John Daly of Smithtown, N.Y., entered the final run in fourth place, but slipped on the starting ramp and had his sled pop from the grooves. He dropped to 15th.
With cries of "Ro-ssi-ya, Ro-ssi-ya," echoing off the mountain and toward the ski resort area down below, Tretiakov won the host nation's fourth gold of the Sochi Games.
And with the performance Tretiakov, the bronze medalist in Vancouver, is set to receive a reward from the heavens.
On Feb. 15 last year, a meteroite zoomed over Russia's Ural Mountains, causing a sonic boom and exploding over the city of Chelyabinsk. A piece of the space rock was recovered by scientists, and fragments of that have been embedded in commemorative medals that a regional government is offering the winners of seven Olympic events staged on the anniversary.
Fitting for the "Russian Rocket."
"This is a very important medal, it's a real medal and I'm happy to win it for my country," Tretiakov said of his Olympic gold.
After two blistering runs on Friday, Tretiakov began the third heat with a 0.56-second lead over Dukurs, who had been reminded of his near miss for gold in Vancouver all week. Dukurs led after three runs in Whistler, but the two-time world champion was caught in the final heat by Canada's Jon Montgomery, another hometown favorite.
Skeleton's best slider for several years, Dukurs, who won six of eight World Cup events this season, had learned the hard way that no lead is safe, and nothing is guaranteed until the last man is across the finish line.
Tretiakov, though, wasn't slowing down for anyone.
Matching his start record (4.47) for the third consecutive heat, he completed his third run in 56.28 seconds, and as Dukurs waited for his turn to go he had to know deep down that the race was over.
Dukurs, who has won 24 of the past 28 World Cup events, managed to trim 0.02 seconds off Tretiakov's margin on his third run, but needing to make up more than a half-second on his last descent was asking way too much.
"I didn't like make up illusions that I will come here and win the gold," said Dukurs, who was trying to win Latvia's first gold at the Winter Games. "I was aiming for four good runs, and what comes out of that, we will see."
Daly and Antoine, good buddies and Olympic roommates, were separated by just 0.04 seconds after the third heat.
But Daly, perhaps feeling the pressure, was out of the medal picture just steps into his final run. His sled jumped from the grooves and skittered sideways. Daly was able to get his sled straightened out, but by the time he did, the bronze was long gone.
After stopping in the finish area, he buried his head in his hands.
"I knew I had to go for it, so I went for it and it bit me," he said. "The blame is totally on me."
Antoine, of Prairie du Chien, Wis., then put together a clean run, finishing in 56.73 seconds to beat Latvia's Tomass Dukurs, Martins' brother, for bronze.
"it's the greatest moment of my life, without a doubt," he said.
Daly and Antoine broke into the sport together, drawn to skeleton for its speed and danger after being inspired by Shea's storybook win in at the Salt Lake City Games.
As thrilled as he was by his medal, Antoine hurt for Daly.
"I didn't see it," he said. "But when I was walking up to the line, I heard all the groans. I knew something bad had happened. ... My heart really goes out to John for the way that ended for him."