SOCHI, Russia — Liu Rui was so close to being an Olympic medalist in curling. Too close for comfort, it turns out.
Two technical mistakes at crucial moments late in China's bronze-medal game proved decisive Friday, giving Sweden a 6-4 win in an extra end.
Both were hog-line violations, first by skip Liu with China's penultimate stone of the ninth end and then by vice skip Xu Xiaoming with the team's fourth-to-last rock of the extra end. The players failed to release their shots in time, causing a red light to go off and the stones to be pulled.
Liu could still have won the game for China but he missed an extremely tough takeout with his final shot.
"This will sting for a long, long time," said China coach Marcel Rocque, who was on the verge of tears. "It's going to be hard on (Liu). I feel bad for him. To have literally (thrown) it away ... I feel really bad for them."
Ironically, China's curlers are widely regarded as being among the most technically proficient in the world. Yet it was their technique that let them down when it really mattered. China has never won a medal in Olympic men's curling, but at least now is within reach.
Sweden skip Niklas Edin said he has noticed in recent years that China's players release their stones dangerously close to the hog line and was surprised that refinements hadn't been made to their delivery.
"I noticed it when I started working with them," said Rocque, a Canadian curling great who was hired as coach in July on a 10-month contract. "And I asked if there was a problem. It has come into their game. But close is close. Close isn't over.
"It's experience, again. Trying to be too perfect on these shots. Tough pill to swallow for these guys."
It was particularly cruel on Liu, who arguably has been the best-performing male curler in Sochi.
He finished the Olympics with an 87 percent overall accuracy rate and hadn't made a hog-line violation atl any previous time in the tournament. None of his teammates had, either.
Liu leaned back against a wall after the game had finished. His players trudged off the ice, passing Swedish players who were hugging each other in celebration.
China, though, has made a major step forward in these Olympics. Rocque, a three-time world champion, has added some tactical savvy to the players' technically strong game and the results have come, with China winning its first four games and reaching the Olympic semifinals for the first time.
"We are disappointed with this loss but we tried our best," Liu said through a translator. "Our team has played very well in these Olympics. I am very satisfied with my team."