SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- When the marks flashed and the boos rained down, David Pelletier buried his face in his hands and Jamie Sale's eyes filled with tears.
There was no easy way to explain how they could have looked so magical, yet come away with silver.
If only they'd made some mistake, left something out, maybe then they could understand. But this is figure skating, and the answers are rarely simple.
"That's the way skating works," said Sale, trying to contain her emotions. "It's judged."
In a decision that immediately sparked yet another judging controversy, Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze edged Sale and Pelletier of Canada by the minutest of margins Monday night to win the pairs gold.
"For two years, we considered that Elena and Anton won, but it went to the other couple," said coach Tamara Moskvina, referring to recent losses by her top pair. "We didn't accuse the North American block, we just accepted it. So now it is our time."
But a gold medal is supposed to be earned, not given away, and that's what practically everyone seemed to find so distressing. NBC commentator Sandra Bezic even went so far as to say she was "embarrassed for our sport."
Sale and Pelletier put on the kind of memorable performance that defines a career. And the Canadians did it even after Sale had the wind knocked out of her when she crashed into Sikharulidze during warmups.
Though she initially felt "paralyzed" by the crash, Sale and Pelletier skated with passionate abandon. Every move and detail of their "Love Story" program was flawless, including two huge throw jumps. Fans were chanting "Six! Six!" when it ended -- begging the judges to award the Canadians a perfect score.
Pelletier was so overcome he dropped to his knees and kissed the ice, then leaned back and let out a scream as he pumped his fists.
"We didn't come here to win gold, we came here to do our best," Sale said. "We were on tonight, we really were. What else can you ask for?"
Especially considering the pressure they've been under. Sale and Pelletier had won nine competitions in a row, including the world championships last spring, and they gave Canada its best hope to win its first pairs gold since 1960.
They couldn't go anywhere without someone wishing them well -- expectations that became more of a burden than an inspiration.
"The last six months were so tough," Pelletier said. "You go to the grocery store and it's, 'Bring back the gold.' You go to the hardware store and it's, 'Bring back the gold.' I'm just trying to buy a hammer!
"When the marks came up, I am a human being, I was sad to come second," he added. "But like Jamie said, nothing will ever take away that performance."
But it will always be tinged with thoughts of what might have been.
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze's program, to "Meditation," was strong but hardly perfect. Sikharulidze stepped out of a double axel, and they couldn't match the Canadians' emotion.
Yet they still collected seven 5.9s for artistry, with the Chinese and Polish judges favoring the Russians and making the difference, ensuring a Russian or Soviet pair has won every gold medal since 1964.
The Canadians got only four 5.9s for artistry.
"How did that happen?" said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion and NBC commentator, adding that Sale and Pelletier "won that program, there's not a doubt for anyone in the place, expect for maybe a few judges.
"That will be debated forever."
But Sikharulidze refused to apologize for the shiny golden disc hanging around his neck. He and Berezhnaya were silver medalists four years ago, and it's been anything but a smooth transition from second to first.
They withdrew from the 2000 world championships after Berezhnaya failed a drug test, which she said was caused by over-the-counter cold medicine. They were then suspended for three months by the International Skating Union and stripped of their European crown.
"Yeah, sure, because I have a gold medal," Sikharulidze shot back when someone asked if he and Berezhnaya had skated a winning program. "All competitions are decided by fate."
China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won the bronze.
American champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman finished fifth in a performance Ina called "the best rush I have ever felt in my career."
Ina, who was ninth in the 1994 Games and fourth in Nagano in 1998 when she partnered with Jason Dungjen, leaped like a schoolgirl with straight A's on her report card when she saw the couple's marks.
"I can walk away and say, 'Wow, that was terrific,"' she said.
That's a feeling Sale and Pelletier will never know.
"What we can't control, we can't control," he said. "That's the way it is."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.