It was, according to one longtime observer, collectively the worst Winter Games performance by the country’s female figure skaters — “ever.”
“I am extremely disappointed, I’m not going to lie,” Karen Chen told the press after her free skate on Friday afternoon (Thursday night stateside).
“I know I’ve trained myself to skate better than that,” Chen said, “and not being able to deliver is a huge let-down for myself and everyone who supported me.”
All three have been national champions at one point or another, but none of them skated cleanly in the individual event, which consisted of a short program and a free skate over two days in Gangneung, South Korea.
Tennell came in ninth, Nagasu finished 10th and Chen was 11th, only a small change from how they were positioned after the short program on Wednesday heading into Friday’s free skate. Even Tennell, a relative unknown who made her reputation on consistent jumps, could not stick all of her landings.
Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, Olympic athletes from Russia, took gold and silver. Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond earned bronze.
Perhaps the brightest hope for the Americans in the women’s individual event was that Nagasu would land the tricky triple axel jump, having made history when she did so in the earlier skating team event at the Games.
She was the first American woman to succeed at such a feat at the Olympics.
But Nagasu fell on her second try at the triple axel, in her short program earlier this week, and appeared to change her mind about a third attempt on Friday while she was mid-leap, in what is called “popping” a jump.
While U.S. figure skaters have historically been dominant in the women’s individual event — earning 23 of its 75 medals since the modern Olympics began more than a century ago — no American has made it onto the podium there since 2006. The last gold-medal winner was Sarah Hughes, in 2002.
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Such a decline has been the subject of much scrutiny within the sport, with one of the most recent contributions coming from the women’s 1998 Olympic gold medalist, Tara Lipinski.
She wrote in a New York Times column on Monday about how figure skating needs to be reworked to encourage female skaters to be more technically adventurous at a younger age, so as to keep pace with competitors in Japan, Russia and elsewhere.
But that will be for the future. On Friday, the U.S. women’s skaters each talked with reporters about their Olympic performances.
Nagasu spoke candidly and with mixed emotions about her three Olympic skates in Korea, including that early medal win.
“I saved the team event with Adam [Rippon] and the [ice dancing siblings Alex and Maia] Shibutanis. We were about to lose our medal,” she said before pulling her bronze out of her jacket. “So today I put my medal in my pocket — here she is — and I said, ‘Mirai, you’ve done your job already and this is all just icing.’ And it has been so emotionally draining, but this is what I wanted.”
“I’m proud of what I did,” she said, adding, “Maybe it won’t be enough for another person or maybe someone else could have done a better job, but I didn’t back down. And although I got zero points for my attempt at the triple axel, in my mind I went for it, so it’s unfortunate that I hit a rut today. But I’m proud of what I did.”
Asked why it seemed the American women could no longer handle a strong Olympic performance, Nagasu pushed back at the question. She noted that Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman, who earned a gold medal in the team event last week, also had a weak free skate on Friday.
Nagasu then began speaking more broadly about her experience at these Games, which opened with that exciting team-medal win and then … kept going.
“I love competing as part of a team,” she said. “But also it’s been a long, long journey, and we’ve had so many other commitments and you know — I wouldn’t change it for the world. We went to the Team USA House [an American athlete lounge] on the lunar holiday out here and it took four hours just to get to the mountain. And I also haven’t taken a warm shower because 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.”
“But at the same time, I wanted this. I wanted to be here and I’m so happy,” Nagasu continued. “I also can’t wait to go home and put my medal around the kids’ necks at home and tell them that they can do it too, if they persevere. And I hope there are better, brighter things to come, and I hope that I get more opportunities to let my personality just shine.”
Chen, too, spoke of the drain and disorientation of competing in the Olympics.
“It was all so brand-new and so different, and the biggest change for me was not being able to see my mom 24/7 and for me that was something that I really missed,” she said.
She began to cry as she described what her mom’s support has meant to her so far.
“I wanted this moment to be very special and I wanted it to be a great moment for both of us and for my family that’s been here,” Chen said. “And I’m just extremely thankful that she’s been at my side through all this time and she’s part of the reason why I’m here today.”
Echoing Nagasu, Tennell said the experience of these Games had been “very exhausting,” and like Chen she said being separated from her mother was challenging.
“Having to compete in the team event so early and then having to wait like two weeks almost is — it was very, very mentally and physically trying,” she said. “Seeing all these other athletes finish their events and be able to let loose a little bit and then us having to stay focused, it was definitely a challenge.”
Of questions about how U.S. skaters can change to compete more effectively at the international level, Tennell tells PEOPLE, “I can’t speak for everybody, but for me I’m sticking around and I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to bring us up in the rankings.”
She said, “I think anything’s possible with hard work and determination.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.