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.

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.

Mens 1500m short skate finals 10

Hwang Daeheon and Lim Hyo-jun lined up in the center positions 3 and 4 in the midst of a huge finals group of nine skaters. With so many skaters jockeying for a podium finish, you knew a tumble or two was coming in this sport of short track speed skating, where margins are razor thin.

It’s Saturday, February 10, 2018, the day after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and I’m in attendance at the Gaengneung Ice Arena for the women’s 500-meter, women’s 3000-meter relay qualifiers, as well as the men’s 1500-meter qualifiers and finals. The anticipation of a South Korean winning gold was so great that you may not have noticed that US Vice President Mike Pence was in the house. But you couldn’t miss the North Korean cheering squad, a red mass of continuous cheering and singing that electrified the arena.

The 1500-meter race takes 13.5 laps, and over 2 minutes. That’s a long distance for short track, so the nine skaters start kind of leisurely. But a few laps in, the intensity grows. The Dutch skater and 28-year-old short track veteran, Sjinkie Knegt, takes the lead.

At the tenth lap, 21-year-old Lim takes control. He slides in front of his elder teammate and world #1, Hwang, and a lap later he jumps inside the leader, Knegt, and takes the lead. At that very moment, it appears that Hwang is clipped from behind by French skater Thibaut Fauconnet, as he and the French skater take a hard tumble into the corner. One Korean down, but one Korean up.

With two laps to go, the question is, can Lim hold the lead. You only need to wait seconds to find out in short track. Lim crosses the finish line and raises his arms in victory just ahead of Knegt, setting a new Olympic Record at 2:10.485. After enduring numerous leg injuries and seven surgeries during years of training, first as a swimmer and then a skater, on this day, Lim lept over his higher ranked teammate, Hwang, into the South Korean pantheon of champions.

As an aside, the bronze medalist of the men’s 1500-meter short track finals was Semen Elistratov, a member of the OAR, aka The Olympic Athletes of Russia, and the first OAR medal of the Games.

Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 mens short track finals
Russians celebrate first OAR medal at men’s 1500-meter short track finals

US Vice President Mike Pence was gone. The North Korean cheerleading squad had departed. After all, the start of the unified Korean women’s team ice hockey match was about to start nearby, and that was the geo-political moment of the night. As a consequence, they missed the first gold medal awarded to the host country at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and it was Lim Hyo-jun.

To be honest, I’m rooting for the USA and Japan when I can, but when you’re in an arena and the hometown is going crazy, you can’t help but get swept up when you’re in a crowd of thousands of strangers united in their unadulterated joy.

Great start to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics!

Lim accepts gold medal

All pictures/videos taken by the author.