Any pressure Wylie felt was self-imposed, because no one expected him to contend seriously for a medal. Canada's Kurt Browning, the three-time defending world champion, was the overwhelming favorite, followed by Petrenko and the other two Americans, Todd Eldredge and Christopher Bowman, who had each won the U.S. nationals twice.
Thursday, however, was a bad night for favorites. First Eldredge, who'd had a terrible week of practice after missing the nationals with a back injury, lost his concentration at the end of an otherwise clean program and fell on a routine double Axel. He finished ninth in the short program, two places below Bowman, the reigning U.S. champion, who touched down with his hand while attempting a triple Axel combination. The biggest shock, though, came when Browning crash-landed his triple Axel and finished fourth, throwing open the competition.
Wylie, too, seemed headed for disaster—as usual. While attempting a triple Axel in the warmup, he hurtled off his axis—he looked like a man leaping into a bed—and took the hardest fall he'd taken all week. "That was the best thing that ever happened to him," Evy said later. "It snapped him into consciousness. He was lunging at his jumps, which is like a golfer overswinging. It got him thinking, 'Stand up, stay upright, don't lurch,' which is what we were talking about all week."
And, wonder of wonders, he did stand up. He skated his short program perfectly, with the grace and dazzling spins and footwork that his fans have admired for years. His jumps were not as technically difficult as those of Petrenko, who was the leader after the short program, or of Czechoslovakia's Petr Barna, so he wound up third behind them. But he had stood up. He'd gotten the monkey off his back and, with most of the favorites having fallen, put himself in position to take home a medal, "I don't know what to say, I'm so happy," he told Brunner. "I've never skated this well."
Last Saturday's free-skating program, however, would account for two thirds of the scoring. When asked if he believed he could win, Wylie grinned and said, "No! No! I can't approach it that way or I'll freak myself out and skate worse than ever." He had to approach it like another performance on the practice rink. He had to try to stay calm.
"I did allow myself to think, for about a half hour, how it would feel to win the bronze," Wylie said afterward. "How it would change my life and vindicate my decision to stay in the sport after Calgary, and especially after last year's worlds in Munich. Now I have a silver medal. I still can't believe it."
Wylie stuck to the same routine he had followed on Thursday. After a Saturday morning practice he asked Brunner to come to the Olympic Village, where they spent an hour or more eating oranges, listening to Garth Brooks and, of all things, coloring. Brunner is a big fan of coloring. Wylie colored a picture of the opening ceremony. She colored an oboe. An oboe. She left him with the music of her laughter, and he went in and lay down for a nap.
Wylie had a good draw that night, immediately after Browning and Petrenko. The judges could score him without reserving a batch of high marks for the favorites. As it turned out, they needn't have worried. Browning, who'd lost a month of training in December because of a slipped disk, touched down while attempting one triple Axel and stepped out of another triple after one revolution. By the final minute of his program, Browning was out of gas and, sadly for him, out of contention. He wound up placing sixth.
Petrenko wasn't much better. After starting strongly, landing a couple of nice combinations, he flattened out like a blini. In the final two minutes of his program, with the Olympic title seemingly assured, he doubled one triple jump, nearly stuck in the ice while attempting an Arabian, fell on a triple Axel and singled a double. Still, the judges gave him high marks, seemingly determined to make Petrenko, a stylist who got the bronze in Calgary four years ago, the first male singles skater from the former Soviet Union to win a gold medal.
On this night, though, Wylie was better. He hurt his chances of winning by attempting no triple jumps in combination, by two-footing the landing of a triple Salchow and by doubling a triple Lutz. But the two triple Axels he tried were perfect. And he skated by far the most compelling program of the night. As Wylie so elegantly showed on this evening, jumping is only one way to get the fans out of their seats. Skating to the theme from the movie Henry V, he mesmerized the audience with his dynamic spins, dramatic lines and flawless timing. Wylie's three Russian splits at the end of his program, his toe picks slapping the palms of his hands, called to mind 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton and brought the spectators to their feet for the only time all night.