INNSBRUCK – In a riveting contest that was not decided until the final heats, Latvia’s Augusts Valdis Vasilonoks and Julie Zwarthoed of the Netherlands won the first hockey skills challenge competition ever to be held as an Olympic medal event.
The competition was very close, played out in front of almost 2,000 spectators in Innsbruck, including the IOC’s top brass. Going into the final men’s event, the Puck Control competition, Vasilonoks held a slim two-point lead (18 total points) over Slovenia’s Primoz Cuvan, Japan’s Seiya Furukawa, Callum Burns of New Zealand, and Attila Kovacs of Hungary (16 points each).
Vasilonoks was under pressure, needing to perform well enough in the first heat to get the points necessary to hold off his opponents. He beat out Cuvan in the first heat, then in the semi-final he went against Callum Burns, who almost had Vasilonoks beat but slipped on the last obstacle, securing gold for the Latvian.
For Vasilonoks, the gold is the first ever that Latvia has won as a nation at a Winter Olympic event.
“I didn’t know, wow,” said Vasilonoks. “I’m proud that Latvia finally got it.”
In all, Vasilonoks won only one of the six events, firing a slapshot registering 145.2 in the Hardest Shot competition semi-final to help him win the event. He finished second in the Fastest Lap and the Skating Agility events, and third in Shooting Accuracy. The heavily favoured Latvian was upset in his first heat of the Passing Precision event, being outduelled by Furukawa who hit all five targets on nine attempts. But his second place finish in the last event gave him a final total of 21 points, one more than second place Kovacs.
Zwarthoed, Vasilonoks’ counterpart in the women’s event, was in an even more tenous position in the last event, sharing the top spot in the rankings with Hungary’s Fanny Gasparics, while Sharnita Crompton (AUS) and Agnese Tartaglione (ITA) were close behind with 15 points, and Great Britain’s Katherine Gale sitting at 14 points prior to the final event.
But Tartaglione and Crompton lost the handle on the puck in their opening heats, and Zwarthoed was able to eliminate Gasparics with a clean run through the course to help cement her lead. She faced Gale in the final round and won by nearly a tenth of a second.
The best women in the Skills Challenge: Fanni Gasparics (HUN, 2nd), Julie Zwarthoed (NED, 1st) and Sharnita Crompton (AUS, 3rd). Photo: Oliver Lerch / GEPA pictures
“The last heat, I knew I had to do it so I just gave it everything,” said Zwarthoed.
The competition which began back in July 2011 in the early qualification phase in Vierumäki, Finland, served as an opportunity to give the Olympic experience to hockey players from countries that would not otherwise have a chance to participate in a hockey-related Olympic tournament.
“It’s good because all these guys wouldn’t have an opportunity to go to the Olympics, since in hockey its always Canada, USA, Finland, Russia,” said Zwarthoed. “So it’s a nice event for other countries who have players but can’t qualify for the hockey tournaments.”
The Hungarian duo of Kovacs and Gasparics in the women’s event each won silver. The bronze medals went to Furukawa in the men’s event and Crompton in the women’s.
“I’m going to give my mum a massive hug, I’m speechless,” said Crompton. “I was expecting to have a great time here and learn from this experience, and a medal is just a massive bonus.”
All of the participants cheered and hugged each other following the medal ceremony, demonstrating the bond that developed between these competitors through the six months leading up to these Games.
“We met in Finland for the first time, but I think we’re gonna be friends for a long time,” said Vasilonoks. “And I definitely want to see this competition in another Olympics, at least just to see how the other guys do (laughs).”
For Zwarthoed, who is a hockey fanatic and named her dog after her hero Sidney Crosby, it was an unforgettable moment.
“I have no words for it now, it’s tough to describe how I feel,” said Zwarthoed. “We’ve built a friendship between all of us who competed and I’ll never forget this experience.”
Click here to see video interviews with the medal winners.
Click here for more photos from the Skills Challenge.
Click here for the final men's ranking.
Click here for the final women's ranking.