U.S. Women Win First Medal In Cross-Country Skiing, Fall Short In Figure Skating

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 22, 2018 7:57 am
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At the Winter Olympics in South Korea, it has been a day of historic highs and lows for the United States. American women won a first-ever medal in cross-country skiing, stunning a sport that's usually dominated by Norwegians and Finns and Swedes. Not such happy news in the world of women's figure skating, which Americans have dominated for years - for years but not today. From Pyeongchang, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: We're going to start with the bad news. And sorry, it's historically bad. Since 1976, Olympic ladies' figure skating competitions have included the roughly 2.5-minute short program. It's not as long or important as the free skate that comes later. But it's still significant for putting skaters in position to medal. And in those 42 years of Olympic short programs, American women have never done as badly as today.


GOLDMAN: That's the groan interrupting pretty music as Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. fell during a performance that left her in ninth place. Last year's U.S. national champion Karen Chen stumbled on one of her jumps. She finished 10th.


KAREN CHEN: I guess I just felt the pressure, and I felt nervous.

GOLDMAN: This year's U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, who rarely falls in competition, did. She finished 11th.


BRADIE TENNELL: I could tell that something was just a little off. You know, things happen. We're all human, we make mistakes. So you've just got to get up and keep going.

GOLDMAN: But back to Nagasu's fall. It was significant because it was on a jump that's not just any jump. It was Nagasu's triple axel. She's the only skater in the competition doing it. Last week in the team event, she became the first American woman ever to land the difficult maneuver in the Olympics. It's 3.5 revolutions in the air and the only jump where a skater takes off going forward. After working on it tirelessly, Nagasu has made it her own, for better or for worse.


MIRAI NAGASU: I wish I could land it perfectly every time. But it's still a new jump. And, you know, even the best skaters make mistakes. And so I like to think of myself as one of the best, but I just made a little, tiny error today.

GOLDMAN: Nagasu can't afford tiny or any size errors in Friday's free skate if she wants to vault up the standings and maybe even challenge for a medal. The top two spots will be tough for anyone to touch. Fifteen-year-old Alina Zagitova and 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva, both Russian, are 1 and 2. The precocious Zagitova employs her own special jumping strategy. She back loads her jumps to the second half of her programs, which earns her more points. Nagasu's coach Tom Zakrajsek is impressed.

TOM ZAKRAJSEK: Your heart rate maxes out at 115. You've got lactic acid in your muscles pretty much from that point on. And to jump and jump well and cleanly when you're fatigued is wicked hard.

GOLDMAN: You know what else is hard - cross-country skiing, which brings us to our good news.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Go, Kikkan. This is it. Come on. Come on, Kikkan.

GOLDMAN: Five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall has heard the cheers so many times like tonight at Olympic cross-country races, cheers that almost always ended with a consoling pat on the back. This time though, the cheers didn't end.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In first place, team United States a winner.

GOLDMAN: Randall, 35, and her teammate Jessie Diggins raised their arms to history. They won the team sprint free final, the first Olympic cross-country medal ever for U.S. women. Said Randall, it still doesn't feel real. It's what I've been working on for 20 years. This was history to smile about. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Pyeongchang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.