A Winter Olympics-record 37 medals by the United States say something about the diversity of American sports. Maybe we should pay more attention to these athletes. Look at what they did.

VANCOUVER, B.C. — What began as a joke turned into a serious mission.

What began as “Own the podium? How funny, Canada!” turned into “Own the podium? Why not us?”

What began as innocuous ribbing of our northern neighbors’ out-of-character audacity turned into the best Winter Olympics showing in United States history.

In our most memorable, thrilling and successful cold-weather frolic ever, a new standard was set. And even in our most heartbreaking moment, an 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the men’s hockey gold-medal game, respect for the U.S. brand only increased.

“These athletes have made the entire country proud, and we couldn’t be happier with their performance,” said Larry Probst, United States Olympic Committee chairman. “It’s just an awesome experience, and we thank them for this.”

Thank them first for coming through after mocking Canada’s Own the Podium program. Snowboarder Nate Holland led the swagger and declared what the Americans would do with said podium.

“We’ll just rent it for the month,” Holland said.

Fortunately, his big mouth was prophetic. The Americans earned a Winter Games-record 37 medals. After a remarkable start, it looked like the U.S. was about to repossess the podium. But considering the fact that Canada closed amazingly and captured 14 gold medals, the most ever for a host country, “rent” is the right word.

The podium was ours — until Canada took it back at the end. Everyone was happy all around, as evidenced by a conversation I overheard last week involving two drunken fans on the SkyTrain.

Drunken Canadian fan: “U.S. sucks!”

Drunken American fan: “No, we have the most medals! Canada sucks!”

Drunken Canadian fan: “But we have the most golds!”

Drunken American fan: “OK, I like Canada again.”

Drunken Canadian fan: “Thanks. Sorry. U.S. doesn’t suck.”‘

Didn’t stick around to see if they hugged.

It was the Get Over It And Party Games. It possessed all the elements of a great fiesta: entertainment, conflict, humiliation, drama, disasters, party crashers, silliness, memories and a fantastic finish that made you leave saying, “Epic, dude. I’ll never forget what fun I had.”

The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili stained the Vancouver Olympics, but the tragedy didn’t overwhelm the event. Not sure what it says about us: resilient or ignorant? Emotions are mixed, but they usually are in life. We keep breathing. We keep enjoying. We try to obstruct despair with distractions.

This much is certain: After the darkness of an ugly beginning, there was light. And the Americans found it first and led everyone to it.

Remember Seth Wescott, winning the gold in snowboard cross and carrying the World War II military-service flag of his late grandfather?

Remember Lindsey Vonn, finding greatness with a push from Julia Mancuso? Remember Shaun White dominating and performing an encore halfpipe trick? Remember Shani Davis gliding and Bode Miller redeeming and Apolo Ohno grinding to make history?

From Evan Lysacek to Steve Holcomb, these Games were ours.

“To see the success that we’ve had is really inspiring,” Vonn said. “Throughout these Games, I’ve been watching all of the U.S. athletes do so well, and it’s been so cool to watch the American flag go up on the podium so many times. It seems like every single competition there’s someone from the U.S. up on the podium.”

Bill Demong, who gave the U.S. its first nordic-combined gold, was selected to lead Team USA into the closing ceremony. He was the perfect pick, a man who defied meager expectations and brought more glory to this country.

Hard to believe, but 22 years ago, the United States won only six medals in the 1988 Calgary Games. This squad accomplished that in one record-setting day here.

The Winter Olympics still remain the Other Olympics in the U.S. We don’t quite get them. We aren’t exposed to them regularly because the Big Three — football, basketball and baseball — dominate our daily sports diet.

But those 37 medals say something about the diversity of American sports. Maybe we should pay more attention to these athletes. Look at what they did with the attention that came from being so close to home.

“A lot of Americans came here, so the memory I will take from this is that it was a fantastic Games in a beautiful setting, put on by a really proud city,” Demong said. “And in a little way, it was like a North American Olympics. There were so many enthusiastic fans from the States, and also, I think the Americans and Canadians were rooting for each other’s teams a little bit. That’s a special memory for me.”

At the end, greatness owned the podium, as usual. It wasn’t a single nation, but the single-minded, dogged pursuit of athletes from around the world. The U.S. was fortunate to have the biggest slice of success.

“It’s definitely the best Olympic experience I’ve had,” three-time Olympian Vonn said.

No more “Own the Podium” jokes, OK?

Closing time. Light outs. Podium removed.

Memories saved for eternity.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer