Five knee surgeries, team tensions and a shocking qualifying run weren’t enough to scupper Jarryd Hughes who claimed silver for Australia at the Winter Olympics in snowboard cross.
French world No.1 Pierre Vaultier snared gold and Spaniard Regino Hernandez bronze on Thursday as fellow Australian Alex Pullin crashed out in the decider to be sixth.
Hughes had won just two World Cup events in an injury-riddled career and was thought to be less of a medal threat than Pullin, a two-time world champion in the sport.
But the 22-year-old negotiated the course superbly, as other competitors crashed in the six-man decider to be in a late three-way race for gold.
He made up ground on a runaway Vaultier in the dying stages as he narrowly held off Hernandez.
“The last five years, I haven’t really been able to do a lot of on-snow training,” he said.
“It was rough. It has been a long process and a lot of money.
“But I’m just so happy to be here and walk away with that result.”
He wasn’t the only one to walk away – Hughes’ teammate Pullin didn’t hang around after he’d claimed the medal, long-standing tensions in the team later spelled out by Olympic Winter Institute boss Geoff Lipshut.
“Those are personal issues they have,” Lipshut said.
“What we have done is put a process in place where they all respect each other as athletes.
“We’ve set up a process where they are happy to be on the same team here and they all get on well enough to do their sport – and that’s all we ask of them.”
Hughes has his own coach and largely trains separately to Pullin and several other riders in the Australian snowboard cross team.
Things came to a head at the Sochi Winter Olympics over funding issues in the team, Hughes part of a group using the hashtag ‘team outcast’ on social media to express displeasure at the situation.
But Lipshut said those matters had been resolved and the team functioned well despite the divisions.
“No one crossed each other and the lead-up here has been respectful,” Lipshut said.
“We actually rehearsed the lead-in (to PyeongChang) for years. We said ‘you’re all going to be in the same team, you better get used to it’. He added with a chuckle: “I’m actually not going to say what my worst fear was.”
“In think this sport, you need to be a very strong personality because it’s just dog eat dog out there. That’s the type of sport it is. If you want dog eat dog you need some big dogs.”
That might have been the least of Hughes’ concerns earlier in the day as he clearly struggled in qualifying.
Well off the pace, he had to do a second run which he won. He took that improved form into the head-to-head racing and quickly made light of the seedings.
“I greased the start. I think the Olympic movement hit me,” he said of his botched qualifying opener.
Hughes moved smoothly through to the semi-finals with a first and second and avoided the carnage of the rough qualifying final in which teammate Cam Bolton ended up with apparent tendon damage and a makeshift cast on his arm.
Bolton ended up 10th.
For Pullin, it was another Olympic miss, the 30-year-old has been one the best riders of the past decade but Games success has eluded him twice before.
“I was riding on the razor’s edge and, sometimes, that doesn’t work out,” said Pullin who took a fall after a jump in the gusty conditions.
“But I walk away which is the first miracle.”
For Sydneysider Hughes, it was a superb result after a mixed season in which he had won a World Cup but also had finishes of 27th, 48th and 33rd.
Hughes said he had done a lot of training with Sydney club rugby players to stay fit.
He follows moguls skier Matt Graham (silver) and halfpipe snowboarder Scotty James (bronze) as Australian medallists at these Games.
It was Australia’s 15th Winter Olympics medal to equal the three achieved in the past two Games.