Yuzuru Hanyu victorious
Yuzuru Hanyu victorious.

 

In the end, it’s always about the athletes.

The breathtaking height of the snowboarder’s leap off the halfpipe lip.

The exquisite marriage of athleticism and artistry of the figure skater.

The inexhaustible drive of the cross country skier.

The lightning quick reflexes of the short track speed skater.

The champion’s habit to shrug off mistakes and bore down.

The unbridled glee of a personal best on the biggest stage in the world.

The swell of gratefulness that settles like balm over years of pain and sacrifice.

The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympiad was a success. For the athletes showed us again, as they do every two years, that striving to be the fastest, highest, and strongest is symbolic of our own everyday hope to be the best we can be.

The PyeongChang Games are over.

But the countdown to the Tokyo Games continue.

878 days to go!

USA womens ice hockey team victorious
USA women’s ice hockey team victorious

 

Russian wins ice hockey gold
China Xinhua News

 

It went, miraculously, to overtime.

No one thought it would. No one believed the Germans, 66:1 bet to win gold in PyeongChang, would stay competitive with the Russian men in the ice hockey finals. In the end, in sudden-death overtime, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov took a pass from Nikita Gusev and blasted a shot into the net to end Germany’s incredible run, and take the game 4-3.

Team OAR won gold. Team Germany won silver….a most unexpected silver.

After losing their first two games in the tournament, Team Germany started winning, and then defeated Sweden in overtime 4-3, and Canada 4-3 in the semifinals, setting up their improbable match against the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). Germany had never been to a finals before, and were happily aware that a silver medal was still all gravy.

But they realized early on, they had a chance for gold. At 16:44 of the third period, Jonas Muller took a pass from Yasin Ehliz, held the puck looking for an opening, and then rocketed a shot into the net. Germany led 3-2. All they had to do was hold on for a little over 3 minutes to achieve their first ever gold medal.

Thirty seconds later, Russia got called for a penalty. Could it really be that easy? Did they really believe in miracles?

With only a minute 11 seconds left in the game, the Russian goalie, Vasili Koshechkin, went to the bench. Players on the ice were five on five, but the Russian net was empty. Then, at a most inopportune time, the Germans had a brain cramp. As they approached the Russian blue line, the Germans dumped the puck, essentially handing the puck back to the Russians. They could have passed it back towards their own zone, and killed off more precious seconds, but instead, the Germans gave up control of the puck to the Russians.

And they took advantage.

The Russians carried it into the German zone, and you could feel an opportunity building. The puck came loose to the left of the German goalie, and the Russian forward, Gusev swatted at the puck, somehow knocking in a shorthanded goal, with only 55 seconds left in the game to tie the match.

As NBC analyst Mike Milbury intoned, “Just when you thought it was destiny for Germany….”

When the game goes to overtime, they play four on four, which is thought to be an advantage for the better skating, better passing team. That would be the Russians. And while Team OAR did not dominate, they made the great passes when they needed, the final snap pass to Kaprizov putting an end to an incredible ice hockey finals.

So for a second time in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad, we saw the raising of the Olympic Flag in place of the Russian flag, and the Olympic anthem playing in place of the Russian anthem.

But you could sense that the crowd and the players were singing a different song.

The Russians didn’t care. They won one of the most incredible Olympic ice hockey finals ever. And they were the champions.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby (L) Simen Hegstad Krueger (C) Hans Christer Holund (R)
Martin Johnsrud Sundby (L) Simen Hegstad Krueger (C) Hans Christer Holund (R) lead a 1-2-3 Norwegian podium sweep in the skiathlon; Yonhap/IANS

It’s an embarrassment of riches. Norway has dominated the medals table at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, easily eclipsing Germany, Canada and the US in the medal count.

In fact, in the cross country skiing event called the skiathlon on February 11, 2018, a first-time Norwegian Olympian, Simen Hegstad Krueger, gave the entire field of skiers a huge advantage, and still won handily.

To be honest, there is nothing easy about cross-country skiing, which is a grueling sport that requires tremendous levels of endurance. In the skiathlon, competitors have to ski 15 kilometers in the classical technique (similar to a walking motion), and 15 more kilometers in the freestyle technique (similar to a ice skating motion).

And Krueger, who was in the middle of the pack of 68 competitors, was given an even greater challenge. Tripped at the start of the 30-kilometer race, only 200 meters into the start, he fell to the snow, taking down two OAR athletes who fell on top of him. In the fall, one of his poles had snapped, and he had to get another one from his coach.

Suddenly , Krueger was dead last.

A fall like this would demoralize a large number of athletes. But Krueger took it one push of his poles at a time. “I was completely last in the group,” Krueger said in this NBC article, “so I had to start the race again and switch focus to catch up with the guys. When I did it, I was (saying to myself), ‘OK, take one lap, two laps, three laps and just get into it again.”

Simen Hegstad Krueger below two OAR skiers
Krueger takes a spill_Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

As Business Insider showed in this pictorial of Krueger’s progress, the Norwegian put together an amazing come back, passing 62 other skiers over the next 22 kilometers, moving into 5th place with 8 kilometers left.

Finding another gear, Krueger all but forgot his spill and last-place re-start, and moved into the lead, and built it. As Business Insider put it, “In a performance that can best be described as some combination of awesome, courageous, and (Katie) Ledeckian, Krueger put distance between himself and the rest of the field.”

Krueger won the 30-kilometer skiathlon 8 seconds ahead of Martin Johnsrud Sundby and almost 10 seconds ahead of Hans Christer Holund, making it a podium sweep for Norway.

“It is an indescribable feeling,” Krueger said. “It is an amazing day, but it started in the worst way with the fall after the first 100 meters and a broken pole. I was thinking this is over.”

Krueger was in it for the long haul, and as they say, it isn’t over until it’s over.

Red Gerard with medal
Red Gerard, Photo by Marianna Massey / Getty Images

I saw him flipping through the air on the big screen at USA House to win gold for USA in the men’s slopestyle snowboarding contest on Sunday, February 11. Then I saw him again 13 days later (this morning), competing in the inaugural Olympic men’s Big Air snowboarding competition.

And on the train ride home, I saw him again on a clip from Jimmy Kimmel Show, wearing his gold medal.

Huh?

Red Gerard is a 17-year-old snowboarding phenom, but can he defy the laws of physics and be in two geographies at the same time? No, but he has not stopped moving since he stepped off the medal podium last week.

According to this Washington Post article, Gerard and his agent saw this 10-day gap between events as an opportunity to hit the US talk show circuit during the Olympics. He flew 13 hours to Los Angeles and spent time with Kimmel on his show, with Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Ripa on CBS This Morning, and with People Magazine. After three days in LA, he got back on a plane to head back to South Korea.

 

And if we learned anything from the interview on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Red Gerard is a poster child for snowboarding culture: nonchalant cool, humble, and eager for fun. The night before his gold-medal run in the slope style competition, he watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine in his room, overslept and proceeded to slay the slope.

Kimmel seemed surprised, saying “You were relaxed.” Gerard replied,

“Yeah, pretty relaxed. I’m pretty good with nerves before a contest. I try to treat it like any other day.”

For a high school kid, Gerard looks amazingly comfortable on the big stage. He took Kimmel’s praise and kidding with aplomb.

JK: This is unbelievable. You’re 17 years old. You got many, many years ahead of you….of disappointment by the way. It’s not going to be as good as this.

RG: (without missing a beat) I know I’m peaking here (he said with his right hand over his head). After this it’s going to be steady downward.

I doubt it. The sky’s the limit for this kid.

Germany celebrates victory over Canada
German players celebrate their Olympic men’s hockey semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

When the USA upset the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, it was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice”.

Maybe we can call the 2018 version “Das Wunder auf Eis”.

Germany shocked Canada 4-3 on Friday, February 23 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was the first time that Team Canada, both men and women, failed to win gold in an Olympiad since 1998.

“Crazy, just crazy,” said German coach, Marco Sturm. “It’s unbelievable, what the team achieved. We had never before been in a situation in which we had been under positive pressure before. We had to stay cool. This is unique. The lads need to savor it.”

Equally shocked were Canadians. Here’s the first line of The Vancouver Sun’s article, “Dark Day for Canadian Hockey.”

The worst possible outcome for an Olympic team without NHL players landed like a spear to the gut in an embarrassing night for Canadian hockey Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena.

Canada has won gold in ice hockey three of the last four Winter Olympics. In the past 29 meetings between the two nations, Germany had won only once, and had lost the previous 11 matches. Ice hockey is essentially Canada’s national pastime, and there are over 630,000 registered hockey players in that country. By contrast, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are only some 20,600 registered hockey players in Germany.

This was a huge upset.

As German defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, said in his interview with Pierre McGuire of NBC, “It’s unbelievable. I am out of words. Right now, it’s such a huge day for German hockey. So proud right now.”

“Is it fair to say this is the German 1980?” asked McGuire.

“I can agree with that,” replied Ehrhoff. “No one really had us on the list. For us we’re just living a dream, day by day right now. The ride continues. It’s just amazing. Everybody is already so proud of us already. Everything that’s coming now, it’s just a bonus. For us to guarantee ourselves a medal, it’s….wow.”

Team Germany celebrate victory over Team Canada 2
German players celebrate their semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Brendan Smalowski / AFP / Getty Images

Germany was an overwhelming underdog, but they took advantage. And in hindsight, the circumstances that brought the men’s hockey players to the PyeongChang, may have worked in Germany’s favor.

The second biggest hockey league in the world is the KHL, and the bulk of the Russian squad is made of KHL players, which allowed their players to participate. That is probably a good reason why the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) squad is in the finals of the men’s ice hockey championship.

The NHL, the biggest and best professional hockey league in the world, forbade their players from participating in the Olympics this year. That heavily impacted most of the other competitive hockey nations, particularly those from North American and Scandinavia. Germany, which is far from being considered an ice hockey power, which did not even qualify at the Sochi Olympics, only had 10 Germans in the NHL. So, as this article states, perhaps “the absence of the NHLers has not hurt the Germans as much as most.”

A lot of credit is given to the German coach for raising the level of play of the German team. Sturm, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL over 14 seasons with 6 teams, took over the German national team in 2015. According to this DW article, written after Germany upset #1 seed, Sweden (4-3), the German players have responded well to the retired NHLer who had lived in the States the previous 20 years. As they began to win, they began to attract more and better players, and come together as a team.

Compared to many of the teams that had previously relied on NHL players, like the Canadian and American squads that came together only weeks before, the German players, on the whole, have played together for years leading up to PyeongChang.

The Canadian team members were announced on January 11, a little less than a month before the start of the PyeongChang Olympiad, so there was little chance for the team to gel. Even though Team Canada had some momentum into the match with Germany, having shut out both Korea and Finland, anything can happen in short tournaments. Even miracles.

Ice hockey coaches are trained to be emotionless when talking about their teams, unmoving anchors in the shifting winds of a storm, particularly before their teams have won it all. But when McGuire ended an interview of Coach Sturm, saying, “We’re going to see you on Sunday afternoon in a gold medal game. Marco Sturm, Congratulations,” Sturm’s face exploded in glee, and he wrapped his arm around McGuire in a big hug, giggling like a schoolboy who just pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time on his teacher.

Germany is no joke. They play the Russians for gold.

Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira
Lee Sang-hwa comforted by Nao Kodaira, with bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova in the background

The final race had completed.

The South Korean champion, Lee Sang-hwa had the weight of the world as she sought her third consecutive gold in the 500-meter speed skating sprint in front of her home fans, but just fell short to Nao Kodaira of Japan. Circling the oval in tears, Lee came upon her rival, her Japanese friend, Kodaira, who put her arm around her shoulder, and created a lasting and powerful image of sportsmanship and friendship – words not often associated with Japan-Korean relations.

Koreans may have been celebrating the unification Olympics, waving the blue-on-white flags showing a single Korea, but the Japanese government wasn’t pleased, officially protesting the use of a flag that included a tiny dot to the east of the Korean peninsula. The Japanese government calls that area Takeshima and believe it is a part of Japan, but it is also called Dokdo in Korean and in fact controlled by South Korea.

It was the Korean’s turn to be offended when NBC analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo, covering the opening ceremonies at the 2018 Winter Games, described Japan as “a country which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, but every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.” The analyst was removed from the broadcast, but the pain remained.

That is until gold medalist Kodaira and silver medalist Lee came together.

The day after their battle on the ice, the two were huddled together near the medal awards stand, cheerfully awaiting their medals. They decided to kill time by going live on social media platform, Instagram, for twenty minutes. People then realized that Kodaira and Lee were indeed friends. In a comfortable mix of Korean, Japanese and English, the two fastest women speed skaters in the world gaily exchanged wishes from their fans, talked about food, music and how they would celebrate when they received their medals.

As you can see in the video of the Instagram feed, they are reading and translating the comments for each other. Early in the broadcast, Lee put her arm around Kodaira and said they were “tomodachi” – friends. We learned that Kodaira likes the Korean dish bulgogi, and that Lee’s birthday was only a few days later (February 25). She made a point to repeat that – “Nao, my birthday this Sunday. Presento onegai shimasu.”

Absolutely, this exchange was one of the sweetest moments of these Olympic Games.

Ester Ledecka on skis

She’s pulled off the upset of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Ester Ledecká, a world champion parallel snowboarder jumped into the Super-G alpine event with little aspirations of winning. She just wanted to have a great run.

Ledecká did, and to the surprise of everyone, the Czech snowboarder, ranked 43rd in the world in the Super-G, won the gold medal. How did she do it? In a rush to explain, there was very little expert commentary. The assumption was that snowboarding and skiing are very different – a lot was made about how Ledecká was the first person ever to appear in two different Olympic events in the same Olympics, and that the skills for both were quite different.

And yet, according to ski and snowboarding coaches I talked with, that is not necessarily the case.

Jon Casson, the director of sport education for U. S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), was in PyeongChang to cheer on the numerous Olympians he has coached, thought that skiing and snowboarding, on the whole, are quite similar.

My personal opinion is that I don’t think they are truly as dissimilar as the experts make it out to be.  In the end, it’s about pointing your equipment downhill and going as fast as you can. You stand on the equipment and you move your body.  Those movements put pressure on the ski or board and make it do something.  In this case, it’s maintaining as flat a base as possible and taking as direct a line down the hill as possible.  As the most dominant athlete in her snowboarding discipline, she understands this innately and can make her equipment do those things. 

In other words, if you say you’re super at skiing, and you feel you need to prioritize your training, you will only focus on your skiing skills. But someone like Ledecká comes along and shows that under the right conditions, your skills in one sport are transferable in others. This is when cetain other skills can make a difference.

Jon Casson
United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Sport Education Director Jon Casson leads a coaching class at Copper Mountain.

According to wax technician extraordinaire Andy Buckley, who was also in PyeongChang, Ledecká had a skill above and beyond the other skiers. Buckley explained that in Super-G alpine skiing, racers do not get to do trial runs. Once the course is set, the skiers are given ample time to examine the course, but they can’t ski it until the competition. What Buckley said is that Ledecká had superior capability to “read the terrain, find the right lines, know where to go high or low on a gate.” a skill she picked up from both skiing and snowboarding.

And as Casson added, “Ester not only has the athleticism, she has the confidence to go fast or go big, and that transferred to skiing.”

Ester Ledecka on snowboard
Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka wins gold in the women’s parallel slalom snowboarding at the World Championships in Spain.

So how did Ledecká seemingly come out of nowhere to win the Super-G?

  • She had mastered the movements of a snowboard, and how to manipulate it with her body, arms, legs and feet in perfect harmony to the snow-covered ground, and more importantly, she was certain in her belief that these skills transferred directly to skiing. And let’s not forget, she was indeed a skier, someone who came to PyeongChang with an intent to compete in both disciplines.
  • Ledecká was an expert at reading the terrain, a highly critical skill for a race that does not allow competitors to have trial runs, and thus feel and know the course in advance. She read it, kept it in her head to visualize, and executed.
  • And she was confident, with nothing to lose. She was in PyeongChang for the parallel snowboarding race, so why not go for broke on Super-G?

For Ledecká, the conditions were the perfect storm. And that storm begs a name.

Let’s call it Hurricane Ester.