Latvia's Dukurs on track to skeleton gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Halfway down, Martins Dukurs sensed his Olympic gold medal, the one he wanted so desperately for Latvia, had slipped away.

He was helpless.

Leading the men's skeleton competition after three runs in Vancouver four years ago, Dukurs made a small mistake on his final headfirst plunge, and as he skidded into the finish area, he raised his head and peered through his helmet visor at the scoreboard.

The gold was indeed gone.

"I remember thinking, 'OK, second place,'" he said.

He's aiming higher at the Sochi Games.

A two-time world champion whose sliding career began as a family project started by his dad, a former bobsled champion, will take another shot at winning gold when men's skeleton takes over the Sanki Sliding Center track. The first two heats are Friday with the final two runs on Saturday.

In 2010, Dukurs arrived in Vancouver favored to win Latvia's first Winter Olympics gold medal. Heading into the last heat, he led Canada's Jon Montgomery, who was sliding on his home track and a nation cheering for him. Montgomery was the next-to-last slider, and he posted a time that gave him a chance to win.

The pressure was on Dukurs, and he cracked. He finished 0.07 seconds behind Montgomery, who celebrated his victory by chugging a pitcher of beer.

Dukurs hasn't been haunted by the miss, but instead motivated not to let it happen again. He spent the past week being reminded of his close brush with gold. To this day, he's never made any excuses for what went wrong. Montgomery caught him — fair and square.

"That's sport and he was better and that's it," Dukurs said following a morning training run on a crisp, cloudless day in the Caucasus Mountains. "I now need to do everything to be better. That was my fault, I was leading three runs and I made a mistake. Before that season, I aimed for any medal and if I could have gone to Vancouver and one a bronze, I would take it. Ciao.

"I was so close, so of course the silver was disappointing, but I was happy."

Dukurs has been charging toward these games for months.

He ruled the World Cup circuit, winning the final five races. In the finale, Dukurs clinched his fifth straight overall championship by edging his brother, Tomass. Dukurs also won the sport's "Triple Trophy" after posting the fastest time in every heat over the last three races. The award earned him a bonus of about $137,000, and he plans to use some of it to take his team on vacation, "anyplace in the world."

That's Dukurs, who in addition to being the unquestioned top slider in his sport, puts team before personal goals.

Dukurs and his older brother, Tomass, grew up in Sigulda, Latvia, near a bobsled track managed by their father, Dainis. Like many siblings, the boys were rivals, one trying to outdo the other.

"I was trying to catch him," Martins said, "and when I caught up he was like, 'I was helping him, and now he's beating me, hmm.' And as we got older it's a totally different situation. We're not really competitors. I use his runners in some races and sometimes he's gone down with my runners, so it's not a problem. We help each other. We push each other and we don't have any secrets at all."

Although he's again favored to win gold, Dukurs knows there are no certainties. Anyone can have an off day, as he did finishing eighth in a World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., last December.

But he's on top of his game now, which is why the U.S. skeleton team studies film of his runs.

"He's such an awesome athlete," U.S. coach Tuffy Latour said. "He's got a great start. He's got great equipment, great coaching. He's got a great brother. They work together well and he has all kinds of experience. He's got that 2010 experience behind him and he's just really put everything together. He may go down in the books as the all-time greatest skeleton athlete."

An Olympic gold would support his case.

"At the moment I'm not focusing at all on the medals," he said. "You need to fight for every medal in every race."

Until the end.

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