PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – There was hope for a final flourish from the U.S. women’s figure skaters on Friday. It never came.
The free skate on Friday was a little bit sad and a little bit strange, memorable not for the pinnacle of Olympic performance but rather an aborted triple axel and a comment about “Dancing with the Stars.”
Instead of wowing with their precision and execution, the Americans elicited gasps of concern and then offered a list of reasons why this just wasn’t their Games. Bradie Tennell, while improving her overall standing, still finished 47 points out of first. Karen Chen fell and finished 11th. Mirai Nagasu simply didn’t do her most challenging jump, leaving an X on the screens of people watching on TV.
The 2018 Games overall brought the worst collective performance by the U.S. women in memory.
Afterward, Nagasu offered some comments that may not sit too well with some in the skating community.
“It’s been a long three weeks,” she said. “We got here, we got to walk in the Opening Ceremonies, and I saved the team a bit. With Adam and the Shibutanis [in the team skate], we were about to lose our medals. Today I put my medal in my pocket – here she is – and I said, ‘Mirai, you’ve done your job already, and this is just icing.’ ”
She “saved the team”? The U.S. wasn’t likely to lose the bronze even if she skated less well. The free skate, which is usually the climax of the entire Games, is “icing”? It was quite a contrast from Thursday, when a Canadian hockey player was so upset about her silver medal that she refused to wear it for the postgame ceremony.
Nagasu went on: “We went to the Team USA House on the lunar holiday and it took four hours just to get to the mountain. I also haven’t taken a warm shower. There are a lot of people on Team USA and somehow I keep trying to take a shower when all the hot water is gone. Also I’ve woken up so early.”
These aren’t the usual reasons given by an elite athlete after a disappointing performance.
In her defense, the free skate came at the end of a long and tiring fortnight here. All three of the U.S. women said they were exhausted. Nagasu even said, “I want to go home.” Chen said she was used to seeing her mom on a regular basis, and she hurried to say a quick hi before her skate. When speaking about missing her mother in the mixed zone, she started to cry. Tennell also showed a bit of visible sadness when talking about the time away from her mom. This stuff can be overwhelming.
But it wasn’t overwhelming for the Russians, who attacked the free skate with abandon and mostly owned their moment. They were unfazed. The winner of the gold, Alina Zagitova, is 15 years old.
“I definitely think there’s something to be said about Russia mentality,” said two-time Olympian Johnny Weir. “They need to win. They need to be successful in sport. I can’t say they work harder … but Russians fight until the bloody end. It’s rare to find that same sort of mentality in American sports.”
Nagasu tried to stay buoyant, smiling through what must have been a trying day.
“I smiled in the middle of my program,” she said, “which is really rare for me. So I enjoyed myself and I thought of this as my audition for ‘Dancing with the Stars.'”
A reporter followed up on that, asking if she saw it as an audition for a professional career.
“I would like to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ because I want to be a star,” she said. “I made history here by landing the first triple axel by a U.S. lady and third at the Olympics and I think that’s a big deal.”
True. But the free skate is also a big deal, and what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the free skate is a big deal.
Chen was also disappointed, though certainly not as preoccupied with stardom.
“I trained myself to skate better than that,” she said, “and not being able to deliver is a huge letdown to myself and everyone who supported me. To be honest I was dealing with quite a bit of things. I was having some boot issues and I had to make some adjustments this morning during practice. I think that just kind of worked its way into my doubt and it just did not end up the way I wanted it to.”
It was her first Olympics, as it was for Tennell. She is only 18, and Tennell is only 20. Still, the Olympics are every four years and most athletes get only one shot. That’s part of the deal. Team USA hockey goalie Maddie Rooney, age 20, stared down Canada’s powerhouse team for three periods, an overtime session and shootouts on Thursday. “Pressure is power,” she said.
Weir pointed again to the Russians, who dominated this event. He said they have a “five-year advantage in the lower levels.”
“The U.S. is still, they’ve gone a little soft at promoting skaters,” Weir said. “While they may deserve it and have the legacy, they’re sending them to big competitions for a little bit too long, where they could be sending the 13-, 14- 15-year-olds like Russia, that can be competitive. I don’t think that’s a problem, I don’t think that’s a mistake. But it you want to be competitive, you have to play the game.”
It’s a matter of perspective. All three American skaters represented their country well, and worked very hard under difficult circumstances. They just didn’t excel the way American women have in the past – at least on the scoreboard.
“I didn’t back down,” said Nagasu, “and although I got zero points for my attempt of the triple axel, in my mind I went for it.”
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