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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.

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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.

To spouses and sweethearts alike, a very happy Valentine’s Day from The Olympians!

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Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Gymnast Nikolai Prodanov and javelin thrower Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria are the first Olympians to marry during the Olympics, tying the knot in the Olympic Village of the 1964 Tokyo Games.

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Hal and Olga Connolly, from the November 3, 1964 edition of magazine, Mainichi Graf

Americans Hal (hammer) and Olga (discus) Connolly sneak a kiss through a fence that prevented men from gaining access to the women’s rooms in Tokyo. They famously met at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when she was Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia, and they both took home gold.

Ken Matthews_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Ken Matthews and his wife Sheila moments before their famous hug, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

Brit Ken Matthews, gold medalist of the 20K walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, gets a celebrated hug from his wife Sheila after his victory.

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Mike Larrabee kisses his wife Margaret, from November 3, 1964 edition of Mainich Graf

Double gold medalist (400m, 4x400m relay), Mike Larrabee, gets a lengthy kiss from his wife, Margaret. Larrabee of Team USA as you can see in the picture also placed the gold medal he had just won from his 400-meter finals around her neck.

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Robbie Brigthwell and Ann Packer from the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

 

Arguably the biggest power couple of the 1964 Olympiad were Team GB track stars Robbie Brightwell (silver medalist in 4×400 relay) and Ann Packer, seen here hugging after Packer’s gold medal win in the 800 meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.