Redemption, Resilience & Resetting at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Shiffrin slalom in Pyeongchang
Mikaela Shiffrin shrugs after 4th place slalom, photo from CNN

The word that gets thrown around a lot at the Olympics is ‘redemption.’ I think it’s ‘resilience’ or ‘resetting’ – we all know what it’s like to have to pick yourself up, get over it, and continue on.  …the one instance that gets me more than anything is what the speed skater Dan Jansen was able to do. It took him four Olympic Games, and he was a magnificent skater. We all knew how hard he had to work…those are the stories that get me more than just about anything, that you’re gutsy enough to try again.
–Mary Carillo, NBC Olympics commentator

Redemption is about the story. Resilience is about the athlete.

People who write about sports like to turn competitions into stories–myself included. Descriptions are thrown around loosely like Cinderella Story, King of the Half-pipe, Queen of the Slopes. It shows how closely viewers liken these events to fairy tales and hope for fairy tale outcomes.

Those who remember Dan Jansen’s story probably still think of it as the quintessential happy ending. Jansen was the best speed skater in the world, but suffered one calamity after another in his Olympic quest for a medal. In 1994, in his third Olympics, he finally won the gold medal to his relief and the relief of the whole world.

In Pyeongchang, viewers saw that same kind of resilient spirit in the pairs figure skating. Aliona Savchenko and partner Bruno Massot of Germany were in fourth place after the short program. Two bronze medals for Savchenko in five Olympics were a great achievement, and a reflection of being oh so close. Trying for a win was beyond difficult, given that the quad salchows and twists being executed by the Chinese and other younger pairs were out of reach for Savchenko at 34. Still, the German pair skated a perfect free program then watched the other pairs make mistake after mistake. When her gold medal was announced, Savchenko broke down and tears of redemption streamed down her face.

Yet, redemption isn’t just about winning, and bouncing back isn’t only about the top of the podium.

Resilience vs. Expectations

Mikaela Shiffrin has been the best slalom skier in the world for the past five years. With four slaloms among the five races on her list, the media started casually commenting about multiple medal chances. Given the athletic performances of people named Bolt and Phelps (or Bjorgen or Fourcade) in our collective memory, we start assuming that everyone can just rip off two or three golds, as if it’s just become commonplace. Talk about fairy tales!  Expectations become the monster under the bed.

Shiffrin, 22, still has one more event to participate in after capturing a gold medal in the giant slalom last week. She’s expected to participate in Friday’s combined event after deciding to withdraw from Wednesday’s downhill race due to scheduling issues. These Games haven’t gone according to plan for Shiffrin as she failed to medal in her signature event – the slalom (30 career World Cup wins) – and now comes the distraction of her boyfriend getting bounced out of South Korea.
–Brett Bodner, New York Daily News

Even a gold medal in the Giant slalom wasn’t enough for some writers. The next day, best-slalomer-in-the-world Shiffrin threw down outstanding runs but then so did Hansdotter, Holdener, and Gallhuber, the ones who literally grew up in the Alps. They shushed by Shiffrin to take the gold, silver, and bronze. One day earlier, Shiffrin lay encrusted in the snow, sobbing with joy over a medal; now she could only shrug. Fourth best out of 78 skiers in the world is no crime. Only 23 years old, she laid her heart bare on Twitter to reveal a deep understanding of what it’s like to train and win, to fall short and fail, and to keep trying.

That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when they felt both– because we care.
–Mikaela Shiffrin on her 4th place in the slalom

Because heavy winds in Pyeongchang caused schedule changes that stacked the races up, Shiffrin pulled out of two events to focus on one last try in the alpine combined–today. Maybe she’ll win; maybe she’ll come in fourth; maybe she’ll miss a gate and DNF.  Whatever happens will be fun to watch. Whatever happens, she’s won already.

Resilience and Bounce-back Within the Race Iself

Norway has blitzed other countries in the Olympic medal count, as they typically do. But in their “Super Bowl” race, the men’s 4×10 cross country relay, they’d only won in three of the last 10 Games, and not since 2002.  The relay is grueling–well, it’s cross country skiing, which is always backbreaking– but the 4×10 is like watching four elite runners do 5ks runs back-to-back. (Imagine the Olympic Cycling Road Race was a relay, who wouldn’t want to see that?) As a relay, the team has to strategize about who skis the anchor leg and whether to hang with a group or go out fast.

Norway yearned for a win but had been upended by the Swedes and the Italians several times. And the OAR Not Russian* team had 21-year-old speedster Denis Spitsov in its final leg. They also had cagey Andrey Larkov as their opener who immediately showed the OAR strategy because, as the race started, Larkov took off and built up a huge minute plus advantage before the first leg was done. Building up big leads can demoralize the other teams. It requires resilience for the other teams to respond. They have to work together. That’s what Norway, Italy, and France did; they chased down the Not Russian team by leg three.

Norway passes OAR in 4x10km relay
Johannes Klaebo says See ya later to Denis Spitsov on his way to winning the 4x10km Super Bowl for Norway, photo by NBC

Arguably, the racer that gets passed might also be done for the day. It requires resilience–if you’re the one chased down–to bounce back. That’s what OAR then did. The gap wasn’t much by the time leg four had started, and, by then, team Italy was out of gas. Spitsov, the anchor, pushed himself and his team back in contention by catching up to and tucking himself in behind Norway’s Johannes Klaebo. Both had young, speedy legs–what Americans would probably call hot dogs–both had already won medals in the Games. Norway had bounced back in the race at least once, but so had OAR. As the two played cat and mouse around the three final laps, leaving the other countries to duke it out for third place, they slashed up the hills and zipped down the curves. Until, with about a kilometer to go, Klaebo said See ya to Spitsov and put his legs into another gear. Gold for Norway, and silver for OAR. No remorse for either.

Falling Holds the Seeds of Success

Bohannon Olympic Men's Aerials
Mac Bohannon misses landing in Men’s Aerials, photo by Salt Lake Tribune

We joke about the skaters missing jumps, but when competitions are built on executing athletic spins and swirls flawlessly, then bigger scores require bigger tricks. Winning means doing something harder. Trying to win raises the likelihood of falling.

More big air and half pipe snowboarding and skiing events in these Games have allowed us to see incredible acrobatics. Imagine how many times these athletes had to fall in practice just to learn a trick, then perform it landing upright. Then, try to fly higher to gain more points, and still land on your feet. In the men’s ski aerials, the tricks got progressively harder and the falls got more … let’s call them spectacular.  Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko’s gold was for performing a quadruple-twisting triple back flip. Perfectly. With a perfect landing. How many times did he fall during training?

In late 2016, US Figure Skating launched a campaign to celebrate vigor in moment’s of adversity, called #Getup. Gold medal figure skater Scott Hamilton was the perfect spokesman, a survivor of cancer and brain tumors. He put it into clear perspective.

If you didn’t fall, you didn’t try. I fell 41,600 times. What do you do? Well, you get up 41,600 times.
–Scott Hamilton

Resilience & Redemption Have Many Definitions

There’s falling and getting up. There’s bouncing back from adversity and injury. That also carries different meanings for different people. The men’s figure skating competition had it all on display.  Yuzuru Hanyu won the first back-to-back gold medals in the sport in seventy years. Hanyu was so severely injured back in November, he missed his country’s Trials. He hadn’t skated much over the winter and didn’t participate in the Olympic team skating event. As he took the ice for the short program, however, he demonstrated why he’s broken figure skating point records. He was sublime. When the last skater finished the long program, and Hanyu realized he had won the medal that all of Japan expected him to win, his tears of redemption–of resilience–were as genuine as anyone’s.

High expectations also sat on 18-year-old Nathan Chen’s shoulders in the competition on the opening weekend. After being labeled by U.S. media as the Quad King (fairy tale words again!), he faltered. Again in the individual short program, he fell in all three of his quad jumps. Seventeenth place. Out of it. No chance for a medal.  Knowing he would have four years to chew over what happened, he bounced back out on the ice for the men’s long program and hit six quads–one more than was in his program–and a new Olympic record. He won the long program and finished in a respectable fifth place. Better thoughts for the next four years.

Adam Rippon, Pyeonghchang 2018
Adam Rippon after his team skate, helping to win a bronze medal, photo by ABC News

Then, there’s Adam Rippon, who finished in tenth place. Rippon had been a middle of the pack skater for a dozen years, named as an alternate for Vancouver in 2010, but missing the cut for Sochi in 2014. He had talked openly to the media about struggles with money, with training, with having enough food. He was the first openly gay athlete to be named to the U.S. Olympic team and had pre-Games media spats with homophobic politicians.

Despite the distractions, he took the ice for Team USA after Chen missed his jumps and helped scrabble out a bronze medal with a beautifully artistic, if not quad-filled, program. On the interview circuit in the days following, he entertained interviewers with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. (“How do you explain your success?” “I can’t explain witchcraft.”) TIME magazine declared that he won the Olympics. In the grand scheme of twenty years of skating, traveling, falling, arguing, starving, bitching, missing out, and squeaking by, Adam Rippon’s tenth place was one of the greatest tenth place finishes ever.

At the end of the day, a gold medal is an outstanding achievement among the best in the world. So is a medal. So is finishing just off the podium, or in the top ten. Or gaining a record or a new personal best. Or finishing the race. Starting an Olympic competition. Racing to qualify for the Olympics. Training to try to qualify.

Or just training and falling down and getting up, one more time.



*OAR, the Olympic Athletes from Russia, are competing under the Olympic flag due to their country’s massive doping scandal. However, many commentators continue to call them “the Russians.” My solution has been to label them the Not Russians.

The Yin & Yang of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Jokes about curling are as old as the hills in Pyeongchang. If using a broom is a sport, I’m an Olympian every day. Other fans make light of alpine skiing. How hard is it to fall down a hill? Some sports writers are openly suspicious of new sports, as even one Canadian columnist derided the two gold medals for Canada in mixed-doubles curling and team figure skating. But the Winter Olympics are splendiferous precisely because of all the contrast, across the athletes and among the sports. Hard/soft, high/low, old/young, male/female, fast/slow, down the hill/up into the air, taking off forward/landing backward and always landing upward, as if there was nothing to it.  This is the yin/yang of the Games.

Red Gerard gold medal slopestyle run
Red Gerard, Men’s Slopestyle Final, Photo by David Ramos

Contrast across Olympic Athletes

Take, for example, the gap in age across the snowboarding competitors.  17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim of the U.S. are barely old enough to drive, and both now have gold medals to hang on their rear-view mirrors. Kim competed against Kelly Clark who, at twice Kim’s age, was seeking a fourth medal to add to her stack from half-pipe that began at Salt Lake City when Kim could barely walk. Even older than Clark is 39-year-old Brian Gionta, captain of the men’s hockey team, while Cheryl Bernard on the Canadian curling team is 51. Continue reading “The Yin & Yang of the 2018 Winter Olympics”

Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow

1st U.S. black American winter Olympians
Willie Davenport & Jeff Gadley, 1st African-Americans on a Winter Olympics team, courtesy of ESPN

The achievement was a historical footnote at Lake Placid, an asterisk among the ALL CAP raves for the “big” notables like Team USA’s hockey upset of the Soviets and Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley, push men for the four-man bobsled, were the first black Americans included on a U.S. winter Olympic team. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in two days, the intersection with Black History month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss diversity and to celebrate notable achievements by athletes in the Games.

I was somewhat bewildered immediately in seeking information. First, while data on medal winners came easily, detail about the first Olympic participants was harder to find. Boxer George Poage was cited as the first black medal winner at the summer Olympics in 1904, only the third time the Games had been staged. Whether he was also the first participant is hard to determine. It took quite a bit of digging to ferret out the ESPN analysis that showed Davenport and Gadley as the first winter participants.  Secondly, it was a bit shocking to realize that while only eight years passed before African-Americans were added to the summer U.S. teams, a full 56 years occurred before blacks were included on TeamUSA in the winter. Continue reading “Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow”