PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Sixteen years ago – at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games – Aliona Savchenko made her Olympic debut. Alina Zagitova wasn’t even born yet.
This past month both women earned gold medals, bookending a fantastic individual program that followed a still-novel team event. Here, those and the other memorable moments that made up the 18 best at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
Also: Who’s ready for Beijing 2022?
“I want to give the skate of my dream.” That was the opening statement – essentially – of Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, when he touched down in PyeongChang among a Japanese media frenzy – everyone wondering how well he would skate having had an ankle injury since early November. He delivered not one but two dream-worthy performances, and with them became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals since American legend Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. Already the most famous skater in the world, Hanyu is the undisputed best of his generation… and perhaps of all time. In a first for Japan, the country went 1-2 in the men’s event, with Shoma Uno capturing the men’s silver.
When Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot finished their short program, Aliona looked over to her partner and said, “Did you double?” He had, in fact, doubled their side-by-side jumps, a costly error that put the gold-medal contenders in fourth heading into the pairs free skate, six points off the lead. But in hindsight, that set Savchenko and Massot up for one of the greatest (if not the singular best) skates of these Olympics, the team scoring a world record 159.31 and collapsing on the ice at the finish – this time in pure elation with a stadium roaring around them. Savchenko, in her fifth (fifth!) Olympics was finally a gold medalist after two bronzes (in 2010 and 2014) and five world championship titles.
Savchenko/Massot ended up edging out the favorites - and short program leaders - Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China by just 0.53 points. The Chinese team slipped just enough in the free skate to fall short of the gold many thought they'd win going away.
Forget Moulin Rouge being perhaps the most-used music in figure skating – anything feels fresh when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skate to it. The Canadian ice dance team returned two seasons ago after two seasons away, but after a golden run in 2016-17, were slight underdogs to rivals (and training mates) Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. Say what you want about Papadakis’ costume malfunction in the short dance (more on that later), but it was Virtue and Moir who delivered their knockout punch in the short dance (their stronger program), then staved off the French for gold with a triumphant close as Satine and Christian. It’s a second individual gold, third gold overall and record fifth Olympic medal for Tessa and Scott, now the most decorated figure skaters – ever. Will they retire? “Give us a minute,” Moir joked after I asked him in their podium press conference. Regardless, they’ve further cemented their legendary status.
A year ago? Alina Zagitova hadn’t competed at the senior international level. Today? She’s an Olympic gold medalist. Her rise was as meteoric as it was unexpected, but perhaps the last chapter (read: the final moments of the ladies’ free skate) was the most surprising, with Zagitova delivering a blistering performance free of any nerve and fending off countrywoman, training partner and – so I’ve been told – mentor Yevgenia Medvedeva, the favorite heading into the event. Zagitova’s gold was the first of the Games for the Olympic Athletes from Russia squad, and she’s the youngest winner since Tara Lipinski in Nagano in 1998. Now my request? That these two stick around in the coming quad to build a rivalry like the ones this sport was once brimming with years ago.
One teenager who undoubtedly did feel those Olympic nerves was Nathan Chen, 18 years young and undone by a kind of pressure he’d never felt before heading into the Gangneung Ice Arena having not lost a competition since Worlds last year. He was woeful in his short program in the team event – the worst of his career – then a week later equally as bad in the individual short, admitting then that the moment got to him. What he delivered next was history making: Six quads in his free (five of them clean) and a long program win by nearly ten points over Hanyu. He’d launch himself from 17th to fifth, a redeeming leap after an agonizing Olympic start. He’ll always wonder though: What if?
As I write this, Maia and Alex Shibutani are still the only American athletes to win two Olympic medals this Olympic Games. Their first came in the team event, where the Michigan residents danced in both the short and free, and then came the individual dance event, as they built off their momentum (and comfort) from what they had done for the U.S. in the days before. They were fourth after the short dance, .02 points behind compatriots Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, a team that had beaten them out for a National title just last month. But Maia and Alex performed their Coldplay medley free dance as strong (or better) as they ever have, and Hubbell/Donohue stumbled (quite literally) at the finish. Deservedly, the brother-sister combo landed on the podium.
Oh, Canada! It was Moir who said after the team event that the Canadians had had a plan all along, and it wasn’t hard to see into: They used their best skaters to give themselves the best chance at gold, and in the end, ran away with first place, beating the OAR team by seven points. Virtue and Moir led that charge, joined by Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Patrick Chan, Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman. It was an especially sweet gold for Chan, who four years ago was the major favorite to win the men’s singles event only to be beaten out by a surging Hanyu. Radford wins an Olympic gold medal after coming out as gay in 2015, and Canada has bragging rights for four years to come, though it’s highly unlikely that any of the skaters – save Osmond and Daleman – will be around for Beijing.
The U.S., meanwhile, got bronze around its necks for the Shibutanis, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, Chen, Adam Rippon, Bradie Tennell and Mirai Nagasu. It was a first Olympic medal for them all – not one member having skated on the bronze-winning team in Sochi – and a hard-earned one: A strong Italian team gave the U.S. all it could handle.
There was really nothing quite like Adam at this Olympics, was there? He quipped, side-eyed, long-sighed and “Andrea”-ed his way into America’s heart, skating just as seamlessly as he rolled off one-liners in the mixed zone to reporters. Here was a skater with little shot at an individual medal (he would take a satisfactory 10th place in the men’s event), who was living his Olympic dreams and getting shout-outs from Reese Witherspoon and Britney Spears. Rippon’s shining moment (to me at least) was his knockdown free skate in the team event, with the pressure on from Italy entering the free skate portion of the competition. Get Adam a crown, a Xanax, a drink, a talk show… whatever he wants. He really truly was the prince of the Olympics. And, he got to continue to tell his story – his way.
You didn’t think that was all I had to say about Medvedeva and Zagitova, did you? Just imagine: You’re the two-time and reigning world champion from Russia and no one has come close to beating you since the fall of 2015. You enter the Olympic season riding high on confidence and win your second Grand Prix in Japan, but in the back of your head you think, “Dang, my foot hurts.” That was the first of a long story (saga) that would turn into Medvedeva’s defeat, never clear until the scores popped up on the jumbotron and she gazed at then confusedly, coach Eteri Tutberidze at her side. In the end, “Zhenya” – as she’s called by those close to her – couldn’t stop the force that was tiny Zagitova. But what a rivalry we had for one Olympic Games, huh? Zagitova’s back-loaded programs proved the difference. Don’t hate the player, hate the game…
It’s an appropriate moment to offer a shout-out to Carolina Kostner, 31 years old – simply twice the age of Zagitova. The Italian finished fifth in what was a so-so performance for her overall. But really that doesn’t matter: She was seven years (seven!) senior of the next oldest woman on the ice (Nagasu), and her elegance, grace and grit are truly admirable. Take the Savchenko approach, Carolina: Never retire!
And how about Kaetlyn Osmond? She breaks her leg after the Sochi Olympics and takes the next three years to re-invent herself, becoming perhaps the strongest, most athletic skater out there. She skated two beautiful programs for a well-earned bronze, overcoming some mental demons in the free skate. My hope: She keeps competing, too.
Before her meltdown (on the ice and off of it) in the individual event, Mirai Nagasu made history. Or – as she explained it to reporters – “Herstory.” And that’s what I’d like to focus on: Nagasu’s brave, bold, beautifully-landed triple Axel in the team event free program was one of the standout moments of the entire Olympics, not just figure skating. What was more was that after Nagasu soared into the history books, she skated one of the most enchanting, lights-out free skates we’d see at the Olympics, landing jump after jump after jump in her four-minute program. She joins Japan’s Midori Ito and Mao Asada as the lone women to hit a triple Axel at the Olympics and helped secure the U.S. that bronze medal in the team event.
While the team event was new on the competitive ice at the Olympics in 2014, it was a commentating duo in Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir that took the Games by storm in Sochi off of it. The sequin-wearing, quick-witted commentators were back in PyeongChang as the primetime team, with Tara herself christening Adam the “prince of the Olympics” and Johnny as keyed-in as ever, describing ladies’ figure skating at one point as “white gloves hiding brass knuckles.” They themselves still had their bejeweled microphones, with Terry Gannon at their side and a viral gig with Leslie Jones (you saw that music video, right?), declaring their love for rhythmic gymnastics (shocker!) and being chosen to serve as Closing Ceremony commentators.
For 48 hours the biggest story at the Games circled around a bright yellow bear and a fandom so fervent they dress in costumes for the skater they know as “king.” It was Yuzuru Hanyu’s Japanese following, most of them with a Winnie the Pooh bear in hand to throw onto the ice once he had finished skating. The crowds were peculiar (and not necessarily the most knowledgeable) in PyeongChang, but that all changed for Hanyu during the men’s event, when perhaps as much as 80 percent of the arena was filled by Japanese skating lovers – flags in hand – hoping to witness history. They did, actually, and then threw their gifts of praise (that’d be those stuffed bears) on the ice for the eventual Olympic champion.
While the Koreans didn’t know a Lutz from a Salchow, what they lacked in knowledge they made up for in noise. Yes, outright, fervent noise. The support for the home skaters – in particular singles skaters Cha Jun-Hwan and Choi Dabin – was spectacular, with both athletes giving undoubtedly the performance of their lives. Seeing the home hopes soak in the moment in the kiss & cry was one of the lasting impressions of my time in the arena, watching as dreams came true. They didn’t follow in the footsteps of the great Yuna Kim, but they sure did deliver under pressure – and praise.
There is always drama in ice dance, but not exactly the kind we discovered during this Olympic event. First Madison Chock fell in the warm-up for the short dance, her blade caught on the ice, re-aggravating an injury that had been lingering all season. While she and Evan Bates got through that program OK, Papadakis and Cizeron weren’t as lucky, the French favorites suffering from horrible bad luck when he inadvertently unclasped the back of her dress in the opening seconds of their program. They’d make it through, but not without being outwardly distracted. Papadakis held back tears in speaking to the media after, calling it her worst nightmare. In a way, the accident could have cost them their chance at gold, but it also shone light on their focus and fearless determination. Stopping would have stripped them of five points and perhaps even a shot at the podium. Eventually, they would win silver.
There would be no podium for Chock and Bates, who were seventh after that short dance but then suffered even worse fate in their free dance, when they clipped skates going into a spin and both crumbled to the ground. It seemed to happen in horrifying slow motion, and their glazed-over looks in getting up (“This isn’t happening” “This is a movie, right?”) were hard to even peer at. They finished, but were in “shock” after it all happened. You think? And it wasn’t as apparent of a fall for Hubbell and Donohue, but Zach did touch down on the ice with his hands on a choreographed slide, an error that (coupled with an earlier mistake on their twizzles) most likely cost them a spot on the Olympic podium.
Four years ago the Olympics were a downright disaster for Javier Fernandez, set to capture the bronze but making a mistake at the end of his free skate that disqualified an earlier jumping pass in the program. But two world championship titles later Fernandez – a national hero in Spain and training partner to Hanyu – proved his mettle, electrifying with a near-perfect short program and then keeping his cool in the free. It was enough – in my opinion – to earn him the silver, but he’d settle for bronze, a much, much better reward than the “chocolate medal” (as he calls it) from Sochi.
We can’t all be Aliona Savchenko. But if you’re going to be anyone else, how about Duhamel and Radford? World champions in 2015 and 2016, they were nearly untouchable in pairs skating for two years and raised the technical stakes to heights we’d never seen before. But then came trouble: They finished seventh at the world championships last year and seemed to lose their light, their focus and consistency. They were a part of the medal conversation coming into South Korea, but not favorites. What followed were two performances they were ecstatic with, including a landed throw quadruple Salchow – the first of its kind at the Olympics – and a bronze medal to go along with their team gold. That might be the last we see of the Canadian pair. What a way to go out.
If there is one person you could credit most with helping inspire bringing the Games to South Korea, its national hero Yuna Kim. Olympic champion in 2010, PyeongChang won its bid for the Winter Games a year later and no doubt hoped (wished!) that she would continue skating through 2018. But she barely returned for the Games in 2014, skating in just one qualifying event before placing second behind Adelina Sotnikova in Sochi. It was unclear what role she would play in PyeongChang, but not anyone was surprised that she popped onto the stage to take the Olympic torch, set to light the Olympic flame anew at the Opening Ceremony. She would make a couple of appearances at the figure skating arena itself, but her moment was the torch and the flame. It was a silent act that spoke volumes for what her achievements mean to her country: Everything.
To note: It was the first Olympics in which all four disciplines could use lyrics in their music (a rule that changed after the 2014 season), with varied Moulin Rouge medleys, Coldplay and even Beyoncé. I love it! … Montreal’s training center – led by former ice dancers Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon – nearly swept the podium, with Virtue/Moir, Papadakis/Cizeron and Hubbell/Donohue going 1-2-4. Will that rink become the next great figure skating hub? … Personal achievements for Julian Yee, Malaysia’s first Olympic figure skater, the North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, who skated beautifully, and Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland of the U.K., Penny having to learn to walk again two years after shattering (quite literally) her knee. … And while Alexa and Chris Knierim didn’t have the strongest finish to the Olympics, they nearly didn’t make it at all: She was bed-ridden for weeks in 2016 and needed two surgeries to solve a mysterious intestinal issue that left her sunken to less than 95 pounds. They skated together in the pairs event on Valentine’s Day, a married couple sharing a kiss at the end of their program. How sweet.
And really, how could you not love figure skating at the Olympics?