US wins sledge hockey gold 2-0 over Japan
Updated March 20, 2010
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) Alexi Salamone jokes that Russia is in his blood, but there's no doubt the United States is in his heart - right next to the gold medal he won for the country that adopted him.
Born in the Ukraine 14 months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with twisted legs that were later amputated, Salamone led the U.S. had a goal and an assist in the U.S. sled hockey team's 2-0 victory against Japan in the gold medal match at the Paralympic Winter Games on Saturday.
Salamone said he wants to explore to his Russian roots at the 2014 Games in Socchi, but there's no question about his loyalties. It's as obvious as the American flags painted all over the shell he straps himself into to fly all over the ice as one of sled hockey's fastest players.
"I'm so proud of my teammates and to get this gold for the USA," a beaming 22-year-old Salamone said after the game. "It's an incredible feeling to be a part of this."
Salamone was a big part of it. He led the US in scoring as an 18-year-old while winning bronze in 2006 in Torino, and again in Vancouver with four goals and four assists.
He opened the scoring on a power play 4:10 into Saturday's game against a gritty Japanese team that shocked Canada in the semifinals.
Goalie Steve Cash made that stand up with five saves, including a penalty shot early in the second period.
Salamone helped seal it late, using his speed to get in deep and throw a big hit that led to a turnover and Taylo Lipsett's deflection goal with 1:18 left.
"We're going to celebrate this for a long time, Salamone said.
It's a celebration that would have been hard to imagine early in life.
Given up by his birth parents, Salamone was 6 and living in a place he once described as more an "alley" than an orphanage when Joe and Sue Salamone adopted him.
He arrived at their home just outside Buffalo, N.Y., hobbling around in a crude pair of Russian-made prosthetics strapped around him like a straitjacket. He was introduced to sled hockey at 10, and never looked back.
The arm strength and gymnastics lessons that allowed him to walk upside down on his hands back in the Ukraine made him fast in a sport where players use metal picks on the end of their two sticks to push themselves around the ice.
"I loved the high speed and fast pace," Salamone said earlier in the games. "I always kid with people that because I'm from Russia it's in my blood."
Salamone is also a fan of Russian players and follows them closely, including Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, who has been vocal about the importance of the NHL being at the Olympics in Socchi. Salamone's reasons are much different, but no less passionate.
"Going back where I originated from would mean a lot to me," said Salamone, who hopes to brush up on his Russian but is still undecided about looking for birth relatives for the first time.
"I have a good life here in the United States and when the time is right I'll look."
Salamone's hesitation comes from his loyalty to - and love for - the parents he calls his "real heroes." The Salamones later adopted a second child, Tatiana, from the same orphanage, and Alexi knows they are the biggest reason he now has a chance to chase dreams - on and off the ice.
Russia leads the 2010 Paralympics with 30 medals going into Sunday's final day. Even the Ukraine has more medal (17) than the American's 13. But neither country has a sled-hockey team.
"With my parent's support and love I've had this opportunity to come to the Paralympic Games," said Salamone. "They are more proud then I can ever be - they've seen where I came from in an orphanage to the highest level of sport."