USA vs Slovakia - getting heated
USA vs Slovakia – getting heated

I kind of felt bad for Slovakia. They had a good group of fans, dressed for battle in their colors and flag, and singing songs as they entered Gangneung Hockey Stadium. But it felt like the stadium was partisan USA.

They played American country music. The MC interviewed the wife of Team USA player, Bobby Sanguinetti, who shouted Go Team USA! Between periods, an American singer named Ayla Brown, a competitor on American idol, performed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” between the first and second periods.

Slovaki Fans
Slovakian Fans

On top of that, whenever the Slovakians got a cheer going, their voices would get swallowed up by raucous shouts of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

During Team USA’s first power play early in the first period, forward Troy Terry dropped a pass for Ryan Donato, son of former NHL’er Ted Donato, who wristed a shot into the Slovakian net to give Team USA a 1-0 lead. The crowd exploded.

There was only one way to quiet the seemingly American home crowd – answer right back. And Team Slovakia did so elegantly. Twenty-five seconds later, forward Andrej Kudrina deftly changed the direction of a pass at the side of the net, and watched the puck slip by USA goalie Ryan Zapolski, the cheers of the Slovakian fans loud and clear.

Ryan Donata Scores winning goal for USA

The second period was scoreless, despite the fact that Team USA had two more power play chances. USA had an overall 31-22 shots on goal advantage on Slovakia, partially driven by the fact that the US had five power play chances to Slovakia’s two. And yet, Team USA could not break the tie. They had opportunities. To me they seemed to pass one too many times, or wind up for big slap shots, instead of flicking quicker, more accurate wrist shots.

But then Donato stuck again. Early into the third period, Donata got the puck from the side of the net, his back to the goalie. With ballerina like moves, he spun his body, keeping the puck nestled into his backhand, and then swiftly sliding the puck forehand in the goalie’s five hole, giving the Americans the lead again.

USA vs Slovakia_Ryan Zapolski goaltender
Ryan Zapolski, USA goaltender

The KHL goalie for America, Zapolski, stood tall and held the Slovaks scoreless the rest of the period, giving the Americans their first victory of the tournament, 2-1.

The “home crowd,” as it were, went home happy.

USA Slovakia_end of game
End of Game handshake

All pictures taken by the author.

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.

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

Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova_2
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.

Hal and Olga Connolly kiss_Mainichi Graf_11.3.1964
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.

Mike Larrabee and wife kiss_Mainich Graf_11.3.1964
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.

Brigthwell and Packer_Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service
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.

 

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.