Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU
TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

Wenjing and Cong 1
Sui Wenjing and Han Cong

It was their’s for the taking.

China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had a commanding lead thanks to their short program in the pair figure skating competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena. As 2017 World Champions, they were primed for gold.

And yet, as the final four pairs came out for the last four performances of the competition, the petite Sui Wenjing took a spill during the practice. Perhaps it was the nerves of her first Olympics, perhaps it was nothing. But as it turned out, Wenjing and Cong had to be near perfect. And they were not, Wenjing took a slight spill after a triple salchow.

Sui Weijing falls during practice
Sui Wenjing falls during practice

In the end, this was the story not of the rising Chinese stars, but of Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. This was Savchenko’s fifth Olympics. After two bronze medals in pairs figure skating, at the age of 34, this may have been Savchenko’s last chance at a gold medal.

Savchenko and Massot 5
Bruno Massot and Aliona Savchenko

Massot was in his first Olympics, and the nerves may have shown in the short program. During a side-by-side triple salchow, Massot executed only a double salchow. It was a costly error, and placed the German pair in fourth place after the short program.

In the pre-long program interview with NBC, Savchenko, with little enthusiasm, acknowledged they had a challenge and would have to do their best. Massot, looking as if he was bearing the weight of the mistake like an albatross around his neck, wiped sweat from his brow and said nothing.

And yet, when Savchenko and Massot came out for the 4 to 5-minutes that would determine their fates, they were ready.

Savchenko and Massot 4

“We were two fighters,” said the French-born Massot. “We were on the ice for a medal, and for a gold medal, and we didn’t give up after what happened yesterday. We were ready for this.”

While most of the 12 pairs competing for medals this day had falls and mistakes, Savchenko and Massot, who came together to represent Germany, were bold and error-free. At the end of their long program, aware they had executed a nearly perfect routine, Savchenko collapsed to the ice, not in pain, but in relief. Massot fell down beside her, likely overwhelmed by feelings of redemption.

Savchenko and Massot 1

In the end, despite a record high score in pairs figure skating, Savchenko and Massot edged out Sui and Cong for gold by only 0.43 points. After the competition, the Chinese pair, seemingly locked in an endless hug of mixed emotions – joy, frustration, relief – took home the silver with a promise of snatching back the gold at their 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford were awarded the bronze medal, but were comforted by the fact that they had both already earned gold medals in the team figure skating competition.

Now, finally, Savchenko had one.

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The medalists doing their victory lap.

All pictures taken by the author.

Team Korea Scores
Korean forward Randi Heesoo Griffin (No. 37) celebrates her goal against Japan during the teams’ Group B contest in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 14, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Japan had lost their two matches by 3-1 and 2-1. Team Korea got walloped by the same teams (Sweden and Switzerland) 8-0 in both games.

Thus it’s safe to say that most money was on Team Japan in this grudge match between Japan and Korea, played on Valentine’s Day 2018 in Kwandong Hockey Arena. Would there be bad blood on the ice between the two geo-political rivals?

To be honest, other than what was written in the press about Japan-Korea relations, there was no bad blood. There may have been little interest in this game in Korea, a country without a hockey history. In the Korean barbecue restaurant where I was dining and watching the game, I may have been the only person of some 20-30 people actually watching.

As for Team Korea, made up of members from both North and South Korea, all they wanted, possibly, was just to score a goal, their first goal.

Japan lived it up to the prognostications early.

Defenseman Ayaka Toko sent a nice feed from behind the net to forward Hanae Kubo for the score at only 1 minutes 7 seconds into the match. Then shortly after forward Shoko Ono knocked in a rebound during a power play to make it 2-0 Japan over Korea within the first four minutes of play.

Would it build to 8-0 as the other games had?

Fortunately, for Team Korea, the two teams were more closely matched in power, speed and skill levels than they were compared to Swedes and the Swiss. It stayed 2-0 Japan through the first period, and half of the second.

That’s when history was made. Here’s the NBC announcer’s call:

Brought in by Marissa Brandt. Some room for Randi Heesoo Griffin…and the shot…THEY SCORE!!! Korea! It’s in! Randi Heesoo Griffin and let the celebration begin!

Griffin, who was born in North Carolina to a Korean mother and an American father, took a pass from Marissa Brandt, a Korean-born adoptee of American parents, and scored at 9:31 of the second period. Japan goaltender, Akane Konishi, had her right leg lined up to stop Griffin’s weak shot but for some reason, moved her leg down and away to create an opening for the puck to sneak through.

Weak shot, strong shot – it doesn’t matter. If it goes in, it’s a goal.

And it was a historic goal. Just before start of play resumed, an official secured the puck for posterity. This piece of hard rubber is headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Martin Hyun, deputy sport manager for hockey at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, made sure.

“If the puck was still in play and gone, the historic puck would be gone forever,” Hyun told Yonhap News Agency. “I ran and made my voice heard that the puck has to come and stay.”

In the end Japan won its only game 4-1.

But Korea made history.

 

Shaun White wins 2018 Olyjmpic halfpipe_NYT
Shaun White celebrates after winning gold in the men’s halfpipe. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

 

The announcers were hyped as 16-year-old Yuto Totsuka took off on his run, looking to see extreme amplitude from Totsuka: “We won’t even see him on the radar!”

And then on Totsuka’s first upswing of his third and final run of the men’s halfpipe competition, he flew about 5 meters into the air, came crashing down board first on the pipe’s edge, slid down the pipe and came to a stop in the middle, a hush coming upon the crowd.

Totsuka was sitting upright, but eventually, they carted him off on a stretcher. Would this affect the other skateboarders? How about American Shaun White, who only four months ago had a similar accident in New Zealand, his face slamming into the top of the halfpipe lip, leaving him a bloody mess.

The torch was on the verge of being passed to Ayumu Hirano, the 19-year-old phenom from Niigata, Japan, who replicated the maneuvers in the second run that got him gold at the Winter X-Games only two weeks ago, his score of 95.25 was good enough for gold.

Ayumu Hirano_finals_JT
Ayumu Hirano competes in the men’s halfpipe final at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Wednesday. | AP

White’s first ride got him 94.25, which had him in second place ahead of 23-year-old Scotty James of Australia and behind Hirano. But White, who missed the podium finishing fourth at Sochi, didn’t want silver. He desperately wanted to add a third Olympic gold to his long snowboarding career as he set up for his final ride.

Hirano had nailed two consecutive 1440s in his second ride, the first to do so in the Olympics, which got him his 95.25. White had never had a successful ride of two fourteens, so the question was, could he do it in his third and final ride.

And he did.

The 31-year-old pulled a magic ride out of his black astronaut helmet, and recorded a score of 97.75. White raised his arms ripped off his goggles off, and let loose a primal scream that was heard all the way back to his hometown in San Diego.

The torch was still in the hands of the ancient 31-year-old snowboarder – Shaun White.

Shaun White wins 2018 Olyjmpic halfpipe_NYT 2
Shaun White competing in the men’s halfpipe, where he won gold. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Fontant edges out Choi

At the Gangneung Ice Arena, as the clock displayed 9:10 pm, there was a sense of inevitability. The partisan crowd was whipping into a frenzy as World #1 Choi Min-jeong was mentally preparing for the finals of the Women’s 500-meter short track finals. Choi was favored to take her first gold medal, South Korea’s second medal of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and her first of potentially four medals in the Olympiad.

As the crowd came to a hush, five skaters lined up in a tense quiet, readying for 42 seconds of frenzy: Choi in the innermost lane, followed by Arianna Fontana of Italy, Kim Boutin of Canada, Elise Christie of Great Britain and Yara van Kerkhof of the Netherlands.

At the crack of the starter’s pistol, Fontana jumps to the front while van Kerkhof slides into second. For the first two laps of the 4.5 lap race, Choi is nestled in third place. At two-and-a-half laps, Choi makes her move, swinging wide not once but twice to finally slip into second by the end of the third lap. She has 1.5 laps to make up the difference for gold.

As they approach the end of lap 4, Christie, the 2017 world champion, goes crashing into the walls. As they speed around the last curve, Fontana and Choi are neck and neck, the Dutch and Canadian women significantly behind. The crowed explode in cheers as they want to believe the Korean has crossed the line in front of the Italian. Moments later, the board flashes the preliminary result: Fontana first and Choi second. The crowd’s intensity drops, until they realize Choi has won silver, the second medal for South Korea in their Olympics.

There is always an underlying tension until you get the final results. Until judges review the video, you sometimes don’t know whether a skater will be disqualified for an infraction. The crowd of Chinese seated behind me know this because in the evening, Chinese skaters were DQed in two men’s 1000-meter qualifying heats and in one of the women’s 500-meter semifinals.

The wait ended, and then came the shock. Choi was penalized and disqualified in the 500-meters final. She was not the silver medalist. She did not win South Korea’s second medal of the Games.

Medalists 500 meter short track speed skating_Fontana
Medalists Women’s 500 meter short track speed skating: silver medal van Kerkhof, gold medal Fontana, and bronze medal Boutin.

To her credit, Choi faced the music in front of the press, wiping away tears as she put on a face of professionalism, as shown in these quotes from Yonhap.

I’m confident that I can get over it. I still have three competitions left. I won’t obsess over the results. If I skated far better, I wouldn’t have hit her. I won’t make a complaint of it.

From the angle the referee was watching the race, I think there was a good reason that I was penalized. I was going to accept whatever results I ended up getting, and so I have no regrets. This won’t affect my remaining competitions.

Nineteen-year-old Choi got to the finals after surviving quarterfinal and semifinal matches earlier in the evening. To get to the finals is not easy in short track, the definition of the phrase “thrills and spills.”

Skating at speeds and angles that defy the thin blades of short track skates to maintain traction on the ice, skaters often find themselves thrown off balance with the slightest of touches, centrifugal forces sending them flying like rag dolls into the cushioned walls.

Disqualifications are not uncommon. Skaters, in the moment, can’t help but to touch, tug or bump an opponent. In an attempt to get ahead of another skater, the quality of the split-second decision to slip in front of another competitor determines whether the aggressor has legally moved ahead, or has impeded the progress of the other.

Kim Boutin Takes Bronze womens short track 500 meters
Kim Boutin takes bronze after Choi’s penalty announced.

And while South Koreans bemoaned the loss of Choi’s silver medal, others celebrated. For every disqualification, there is a re-assessment of the order, bringing hope to others. In the second semi-finals of the 500-meter event, China’s Qu Chunyu was penalized, allowing Boutin of Canada to advance into the finals. That’s why there were five skaters in the finals, not four as is common.

More significantly, thanks to Choi’s penalty, Boutin was suddenly boosted from distant fourth to third place, and a bronze medal.

Short track speed skating fortune truly rests on a razor’s edge.

Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 2
Korean women’s hockey forward Park Jong-ah (2nd from L) attempts a shot against Swedish goalie Sara Grahn during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

After their shellacking to #6 Switzerland on Saturday, February 10, the women of Team Korea took on #5 Sweden on Monday, February 12.

The score was the same: 8-0.

And yet, to me, the level of play was different. Team Korea wasn’t a mass of five players on the ice scrambling around their zone desperately trying to keep up, as they were against the Swiss. This time, they looked a little bit more in control.

They weren’t able to deal with a Swedish offense that was stronger, faster and more skilled – thus the eight goals surrendered. Sweden had 50 shots on goal, two short of what Switzerland had, so the Korean goaltender must have felt she was stuck in an endless loop of shooting drills.

However, Monday’s Team Korea was more confident on offense. Their passes were quicker and crisper. They hesitated less and shot more. And they were visibly better on the power play, passing quickly, creating space, and making shots. In the game against Switzerland, they managed 8 shots, almost all of them wafflers and slow rollers. Against Sweden, Team Korea rifled shots on net, and excited the crowd into oohs and aahs with more than a few nifty deflections that barely missed the net.

Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 1
Anna Borgqvist of Sweden (L) and Kim Hee-won of Korea battle for a loose puck during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Korea had 19 shots on goal, each one of them building the anticipation. The Korean play-by-play announcer got so caught up in the possibility, he kept shouting “Shoot! Shoot!” when a shot looked like it was lining up. But it’s not just the announcer. The entire nation is in a state of suspended anticipation.

Korea takes on Japan on Wednesday, which should be an exciting match just for the natural rivalry the two countries have. Japan also lost to Sweden and Switzerland, but their losses were close: 2-1 against Sweden and 3-1 against Switzerland. The speedy Japanese team will be looking to win their first against the overmatched Koreans.

Forget winning. For Korea, the goal is a goal. Just one.

Chloe Kim_second run score

It was one of the most anticipated Olympic debuts. And Chloe Kim did not disappoint.

On an awesomely sunny day at Phoenix Snow Park, the massive halfpipe reflected a blinding white as we got ready for the Ladies Halfpipe qualifier. Twenty-four competitors were gunning to make the top twelve and the finals the next day, but there was no doubt about Kim qualifying.

Chloe Kim in her first run
Chloe Kim in her first ride.

Kim was third to ride in the first round, and off the bat established a score of 91.50. Liu Jiayu of China, who started off her halfpipe rides with significant altitude, came relatively close with an 87.75, but nobody else really challenged. With nobody else in the 90s, Kim decided to up the ante, and scored a 95.50 in her second run.

The child of Korean parents, Kim is popular both in the US (the second coming of Shaun White), and in South Korea. So the pressure of her first Olympic ride may weighed somewhat on her shoulders. But after her successful first ride, she sent out a tweet.

“Could be down for some ice cream rn”

The kid from California had to be kidding because it was freezing cold. But one thing you could say – she was relaxed.

Who’s going to beat her?

The only person who could do that is Chloe Kim.

Chloe Kim_second run
Chloe Kim in her second ride.

NOTE: As it turned out, Kim’s third ride in the finals topped her first-place score, so Chloe Kim indeed bested herself, and claimed the much-anticipated gold medal in the Ladies Halfpipe.

Jamie Anderson_Slope Style_first run 2

Someone once said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

The Ladies Slope Style qualification round, that would have whittled the field of 25 to 12, was cancelled on Sunday, February 11 due to the strong winds at Phoenix Snow Park. Instead organizers went straight to a two-round finals with all 25 competitors on Monday, February 12, to start from 10 am. But even that was delayed for an hour with the hopes that the strong winds, that can throw off the balance of snowboarders, particularly if they’re in the air executing a complex set of twists.

Jamie Anderson_Slope Style_first run 1
Jamie Anderson in her first run of the Ladies Slope Style finals.

At the end of the first round, only five of the 25 snowboarders were able to complete their runs. But it was in the first round when American Jamie Anderson got the best score of the day of 83.00, a score that was good enough for gold. Laurie Blouin of Canada and Enni Rukajarvi of Finland took silver and bronze.

While the spectators in the stands were cold, we didn’t get hit as much by the gusts of winds that were pummeling the slopes. We could see the wind cone in full extension most of the time, and the snow spraying off the slopes when the winds hit.

One of the favorites, Anna Gasser of Austria said, ”it should have been postponed. We tried to speak to officials but the Olympics put us under pressure to do it today.”

Another favorite, Aimee Fuller of Great Britain, echoed Gasser’s sentiments.

I don’t feel like I had a fair shot at putting down my best run, the wind just took me sideways on the last hit. Some girls were lucky. I think today was a matter of luck and the strong riders definitely showed. But at the end of the day not even the top riders have necessarily landed the best runs.

Aimee Fuller_Slope Style_1st run
Aimee Fuller in her first run of the Ladies Slope Style finals

I watched only the first round of the Ladies Slope Style, when Anderson had her gold-medal-winning run. But the fact of the matter is, of the top ten finishers half of them had their best run in the first run, while half had their best in the second, according to the official results report. No one really had two great runs.

Hailey Langland of America came in sixth and said that wind is part of the competition. “We are snowboarders and should be able to deal with it. The girls on the podium showed that and that is why they are up there.”

Enni Rukajarvi_Slope Style_first run_fail
Enni Rukajarvi in her first run which did not end well. She recovered in her second round capturing bronze.

According to a statement put by the International Ski Federation (FIS), they anticipated this situation and said that their decision to go ahead with the event on Monday morning was based on a “contingency plan put in place during the team captains meeting on Saturday, as agreed upon by the jury and the team representatives.” They also stated that “although the conditions made the competition challenging, ‘the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements.’”

Time to give up on governing mother nature.

Biathlon 20

There were flags of many different nations: Norway, Japan, Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and many others. And despite the fact that the biggest flag I saw at the Biathlon Men’s 10k Sprint during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was an American flag, Team USA has never medaled in a biathlon event. In fact, it is the only winter sport Americans have been shut out of.

This is a sport of the Europeans, with its roots deep in the ice and snow of Norway, where Norwegian soldiers since the 18th century would stay in shape by competing in a combined cross-country skiing and rifle shooting contest. While the biathlon appeared at the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix France in 1924, it didn’t become an official event for men until 1960, and then for women until 1992.

 

Alpensia biathlon venue
Alpensia Biathlon Centre Course

 

There are several Olympic types of biathlon events: the individual, the sprint, the pursuit, the mass start and the relay. At the Alpensia Biathlon Center on Sunday, February 11, I saw the Men’s 10k sprint event. At -11 degrees Centigrade, it was bitingly cold. But the enthusiasm and constant noise of the spectators kept the biathlon arena warm and engaging.

Still, I had no idea what was going on. Everyone around me was following their countrymen in the event. I could not for the life of me tell what was happening, other than the skiing in front of me and the shooting I could see on the screen. It must be like a person who has never seen an American football game from a stadium seat trying to understand what is happening on the field in front of them.

But at least a football novice could see the field and the direction the offense was going in. Only after I got back home could I see the extensive track behind the arena where the competitors huffed and puffed their way over the hills and through the woods. Halfway through their trek, they stopped at the arena for two rounds of shooting, one standing and one prone (even to the ground). The shooting was viewable on the big screen and is a significant part of this competition, and yet I couldn’t tell exactly where the shooting was taking place.

 

Biathlon 21
Vancouver gold medalist Tarjei Boe of Norway missing five times, adding another 750 meters to his race.

 

Clearly, when you’ve been pushing hard aerobically on the skis, settling yourself down for a good shot is a challenge. I imagine that calming your heartrate and mind down enough to shoot accurately is part of the challenge of this competition. And if you miss, it’s not good. With every shot you are off target in the sprint, you have to ski a penalty loop of 150 meters, which of course, adds to your time. Miss two or three shots, and your time continues to inflate.

As Finnish veteran biathlete and competitor in PyeongChang, Kaisa Makarainen, noted in this interview:

Even though you can have favourites, you never know what the result will be. You never know how the athletes will cope with the shooting, and then some of the best shooters are not so good on the skis, so it’s really dramatic.

So the skill and the variation in results comes from that moment between decision to fire and firing. And while you can have favorites in the biathlon sprint, (in this event, Martin Fourcade of France and Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Boe,) you can never really be sure who will win. The Germans in front of me were not the flag waving sort, one of them appearing a bit irritated with the large Russian flag that a fan a row ahead of him was waving.

But in the end, it was a German, Arndt Peiffer, who won the gold, Michal Krcmar of the Czech Republic who won the silver, and Dominik Windisch of Italy who took the bronze. The shooting proved decisive, as Peiffer and Krcmar were the only biathletes to hit all ten targets, and thus raced only 10 kilometers.

Biathlon 4
Pre-show entertainment at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. It’s -11 degrees centigrade and they’re dancing in mini-skirts.

 

Opening Ceremony Swag 1The evening of Saturday, February 10 was freezing cold. The bone chilling cold and skin-shearing winds the organizers were anticipating for the opening ceremonies on Friday, February 9. The cold did not chill, nor the winds destroy during the opening ceremonies. In fact, with enough layers and a little help from the organizers, spectators were able to watch without a thought to the cold.

Thanks to the swag.

On each seat, there was a vinyl bag packed with things to keep us warm and to help us cheer.

Opening Ceremony Swag 2

As you can see in the above photo, we had a blanket, a hat, and most importantly, a seat cushion and a heat pad that could be slipped into the cushion. Other heat pads, packs of squishy chemicals that warm up and stay warm as you hold and squeeze them.

I had unfortunately lost my hat that afternoon only to find a hat in the bag, which I immediately put on. Together with my boots, a thermal undershirt and underpants, a shirt, a vest, a ski coat, a neck/face warmer, I was sitting pretty on my heated cushion. I didn’t need the blanket, and thankfully, there was no precipitation to require the rain poncho.

Opening Ceremony Swag 3

One of the gifts was to be used during key moments in the program, when the lights would go down and everyone could turn on their mini-torch, a replica of the PyeongChang Olympic torch. During one of the most powerful moments in the program, when performers launched into a moving rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, spectators waved their torches, imagining that one day, the world will be as one.