AGAIN, THE GOLD MEDAL: Maris Strombergs showed his winning form when it counted most.
RIGA - Latvia can rightfully claim to be the California of Europe following on from their success in beach volleyball and BMX at the recently completed Summer Olympics in London. Latvia returned home from England’s capital with two medals, both of which came in sports that have their roots firmly embedded in southern California.
The biggest surprise was in men’s volleyball, where Latvia’s number two pairing of Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins, who were only ranked 16th in the world going into the Olympics, stunned the current world no. 1 ranked pairing of Americans Jacob Gibb and Sean Rosenthal in the quarter-finals, before losing their first match of the tournament in the semi-finals to eventual silver medalists Alison Ceruti and Emanuel Rego.
The quarter-final win over the American pairing led to a flurry of tweeting immediately after the victory, mainly from Americans inquiring as to whether in fact Latvia is even a country, whilst some showed only a little less ignorance, pondering whether or not Latvia has beaches to practice on.
@jayeeare tweeted, “Latvia beat the USA volleyball team? Latvia is a country?” @michelleisawold tweeted, “If someone told me that Latvia is good at beach volleyball I wouldn’t believe them, because Latvia is a made up country,” and @DarnellEnrique enquired, “Where is Latvia and do they even have beaches to be good at vollyeball???smh.”
Smedins and Plavins overcame their disappointment at missing out on the chance to battle for a gold medal, fighting back from a set down in the bronze medal match against the veteran Dutch pairing of Reinder Nummerdor and Rich Schuil to win in three sets, 2-1.
It was the second time that they had beaten the Netherlands no. 1 pairing in London, after also encountering them during group play.
Latvia’s top duo, Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Ruslans Sorokins struggled in group play, winning two of their three games to finish third in their group. However, on account of being one of the third-placed teams with the best record, they were still able to advance to the quarter-finals. There, however, their tournament came to an abrupt end as they lost to eventual gold medalists Jonas Reckermann and Julius Brink of Germany.
Smedins’ and Plavins’ medal signaled the first Olympic podium finish Latvia has ever had in volleyball, beach or indoor.
Traveling back to Latvia following the win, Plavins and Smedins were overwhelmed with the reception they received, with Plavins telling www.fivb.com that, “There were a lot of people there [at the airport] and they carried us to our car. It was a Hummer limousine and ‘Plavins and Smedins, bronze medalists,’ was written on the side. When we came home it was unbelievable.”
The win has been a serious morale booster for the duo, who went on to claim their maiden Federation International Volleyball (FIVB) SWATCH World tour victory at the Mazury Orlen Grand Slam in Poland, played between Aug. 14 and 19. It was the final event on the 2012 calendar and the victory was enough to lift the pairing to 11th place in the world rankings.
Following the bronze medal from the volleyballers on Aug. 9, Latvia was again celebrating an evening later when Maris Strombergs claimed his second consecutive gold in the men’s BMX.
In doing so, “The Machine” became the first ever Latvian to win two Olympic gold medals for an independent Latvia, with Igors Vihrovs claiming Latvia’s only other gold medal in gymnastics in Sydney in 2000.
As the sport was only introduced to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Strombergs is also the only male to ever win BMX gold.
Strombergs headed a four-strong Latvian BMX contingent in London, alongside Edzus Treimanis, Rihards Veide and Sandra Aleksejeva, who competed in the women’s event.
During the seeding run on Aug. 8, it was Treimanis who was making headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons, with a crash leaving him a bloody spectacle with a cracked helmet for photographers.
After initial fears of a concussion, Treimanis lined up for the quarter-finals a day later, doing enough to advance to the semi-finals alongside Veide and Strombergs. On account of the female field being significantly smaller, Aleksejeva automatically advanced to the semis.
However, the semi-finals are where the run of Veide and Treimanis ended. Split into two semi-finals, the four riders to acquire the lowest number of points across three runs of the track advanced to the one-off gold medal race.
Pitted against each other in Heat 1, Veide and Treimanis both became unstuck on the first corner of the first run when they were forced off the track following a crash in front of them. Treimanis bounced back to record a second placed finish on the third run but could only finish fifth overall in the group, with his 14 acquired points two points off fourth spot. Veide ended in seventh.
It was a better story in Heat 2 with Strombergs staying out of trouble to record two fourths and a second to advance to the final.
At the ripe-old age of 25, Strombergs is already considered to be something of a veteran on the BMX circuit, and the Valmiera native called upon his experience in the final, taking the lead at the start of the race and holding onto it, avoiding the carnage that was unfolding behind him as other riders went down.
Despite Latvians always considering Strombergs to be their best medal hope in London, those within the sport of BMX had held reservations about his chances, particularly following a crash in November 2010 that left him with a broken hand, dislocated wrist and damaged shoulder, leaving him out of the sport for six months.
Strombergs was quoted by the Associated Press at being appreciative of the unyielding faith the Latvian public put behind him, saying “It’s just amazing,” before adding, “I think everyone at home, they watched the race, and deep inside they were hoping I could repeat, and I think my country believed in me.”
That was evidenced when the now American-based rider arrived home in Riga with Veide and Treimanis to a red carpet welcome off their plane. A police escort then returned the trio and coach Ivo Lakucs to Valmiera, where the town turned out in the hundreds to welcome home the city’s biggest hero.
However, the partying will soon have to end for Strombergs, who is due to return to the United States to complete the 2012 North American domestic season.