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Olympics: U.S. Falls Behind In Skiing, Figure Skating

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 9:25 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, at the Winter Olympics, Team USA did not get the results it was hoping for, in skiing or in men's figure skating. We have two reports from our Olympic team in Pyeongchang, beginning with NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There's a phrase in sports when all the predictions break down and the heavy favorite doesn't win - that's why they play the game. Skiing's version - that's why they run the race. And it was the phrase of the day Friday at Yongpyong Alpine Centre.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: As Switzerland's Wendy Holdener crossed the finish line in the second of two runs in the ladies' slalom, the crowd's roar meant a couple of things. Holdener fans were happy. She just won a silver medal. Gold went to Sweden's Frida Hansdotter. But there was also disbelief at the finish. U.S. alpine star Mikaela Shiffrin didn't win any medal. A Shiffrin gold in this race virtually was guaranteed. She's the world's best slalom skier and the defending Olympic champion in the event. But on this day, Shiffrin, in her words, beat herself. It began before her first run when she threw up in the starting area. Nerves, she said later, not illness. When she left the gate, it wasn't the usual Mikaela Shiffrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKAELA SHIFFRIN: Rather than just focusing on the good skiing that I know that I can do, I was conservative. I was almost trying to do something special and, you know, I don't need to do something special. I just need to ski like myself, and it would be fine.

GOLDMAN: Why did it happen? She still says she's not feeling the pressure of the world's expectations, just her own. Whatever the reasons, Shiffrin has to do what most elite athletes are expert at - quickly forgetting a bad performance. But Shiffrin, standing in a cold, whippy wind, said she's terrible at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIFFRIN: Every single, like, loss that I've ever had, I remember that feeling so thoroughly. It's like a piece of my heart breaks off, and I can never get it back.

GOLDMAN: She said she's 22 and just learning that it's part of life. With one, maybe two races left, she's hoping for a quick learning curve at these Olympics. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: And I'm Melissa Block. While Shiffrin was having trouble on the slopes, the U.S. was also in trouble on ice. The best hope for a U.S. medal in figure skating had a disastrous performance in the short program.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Nathan Chen is known for his dazzling quadruple jumps. But earlier this week, he faltered badly in the team event, and things went south quickly in his short program. He fell on his first quad, stumbled on another jump and finished 17th. Afterward, he was understandably somber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NATHAN CHEN: I did all the right stuff going into it. It should have been different, but stuff happens so...

BLOCK: Chen had to follow a magnificent skate by the reigning Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPIN'S BALLADE NO. 1)

BLOCK: Skating to a Chopin ballade, Hanyu was lyrical on the ice and he nailed his jumps.

(CHEERING)

BLOCK: Hanyu finished first in the short program, all the more impressive since he's recovering from an ankle injury. Hanyu is a superstar in Japan, his every move followed by legions of fans. He's chosen Winnie the Pooh as his mascot, and the stands at the arena were dotted with fans dressed in Pooh costumes, some of whom I spotted with their hands clasped in prayer all through his program. At the triumphant end of his skate, fans tossed hundreds of stuffed Pooh Bears onto the ice.

The men's long program is tomorrow, the free skate. Yuzuru Hanyu is trying to become the first male figure skater in 66 years to repeat as Olympic champion. Melissa Block, NPR News, at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "81 AUTUMN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.