At next opportunity, the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, it will have been 20 years since Sarah Hughes became the last American woman to win Olympic figure-skating gold.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — On the fine edge of figure-skating blades, a 94-pound, 15-year-old achieved what none of her compatriots had managed at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Friday. Alina Zagitova delivered the first gold medal of these Winter Games for the delegation of 168 Russian athletes. And she did it with impeccable form, racking up points like an adding machine in a red tutu.
Zagitova didn’t perform a jump until two minutes had elapsed, which enabled her to backload her program with seven triple jumps that earned bonus points for coming so late, when her legs should have been tired. While judges found nothing to quibble with technically, they left room in her artistic marks for her fellow Russian, two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, skating last, to overtake her. She had to be perfect to do so.
The 18-year-old Medvedova was far more the sophisticate, as well as a polished actress, fully inhabiting “Anna Karenina” in an elaborate burgundy beaded gown. With a final flourish, she brought both hands to her face and broke down with emotion at the end. But with one imperfection at the Gangneung Ice Arena, she fell just shy of Zagitova’s scores and wept anew over her silver.
Nonetheless, Zagitova and Medvedeva gave their country, competing here as Olympic Athletes from Russian, a 1-2 finish in women’s figure skating. In doing so, they sent a powerful message to the rest of the figure skating world — and the once dominant United States, in particular. Raise your game, the Russian teens declared through the technical rigor and artistry of programs, if you expect to join us on the medal podium.
Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond took bronze — the only medal that was truly in play.
For the United States, the Olympic medal drought among U.S. women’s figure skaters, who for decades set the standard of excellence in the sport, continues.
At next opportunity, the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, it will have been 20 years since Sarah Hughes became the last American woman to win Olympic gold (she accomplished the feat in Salt Lake City in 2002, collapsing in a heap of disbelief and squeals when her final marks were posted).
And 16 years will have passed since an American woman won an Olympic medal of any color, with Sasha Cohen earning silver at the 2006 Turin Games.
Americans have come close twice since. Mirai Nagasu finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, as did Gracie Gold four years ago in Sochi.
Their showing here — with 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Champion Bradie Tennell finishing ninth; 18-year-old Karen Chen, 10th; and Nagasu, 11th — suggests that a resurgence isn’t at hand.
It wasn’t simply that their technical ability fell short or that judges were unmoved by the artistic components of their programs. It was that in each case, the Americans faltered, rather than rose, on the Olympic stage. All of their marks fell shy of their previous season’s best scores, suggesting that something is lacking in the mental preparation. Athletes who don’t embrace pressure and use it to their advantage — as a springboard to greatness — can be dogged contenders but rarely, if ever, champions.
Nagasu bristled when asked why the Americans succumbed to pressure, calling it “a very aggressive question.” She cited others who struggled in the individual competition and implied that, in her case, she simply had little left after helping the U.S. to the bronze team medal.
“It has been a long, long journey,” Nagasu said. “We’ve had so many other commitments.”
Chen was the first American to compete Friday, up 14th among the field of 24.
As a shout of “Let’s Go, Karen!” rang out from a 12,000-seat arena that never filled nor developed much of an atmosphere, Chen opened her sophisticated tango with a clean triple jump. But her legs seemed to give way nearing the midpoint of the program, and she fell on one jump and put a hand down on another. She couldn’t hide her disappointment in herself, and her marks (119.75) reflected her rocky performance.
Tennell, whose rock-solid jumping ability betrayed her in the short program, followed. With a tiara and powder-blue sequined dress, she set out to portray the “Cinderella” of her music. But like Chen, her rough patch came in the middle of her program, as she stumbled awkwardly out of one jump and didn’t get full credit for a triple toe loop and Lutz, deemed under-rotated by judges. Her score (128.34) was also shy of her previous best for the same program.
As first-time Olympians, Chen and Tennell may well develop steelier performance skill by the 2022 Winter Games.
But Nagasu, 24, seemed determined to bow out of what may be her final Olympics with nothing held in reserve and no regrets, planning a program that included a staggering nine triple jumps — two more than either of the favored Russians. Perhaps the overloaded script, which she was not obligated to perform, played with her mind. She aborted her opening jump — the high-risk triple axel she has spent eight years mastering, with this stage in mind. And the program careened from there, with a lovely triple flip-triple toe loop combination-triple that seemed to settle her and coax a smile, followed by another popped jump later in the program.
The fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Nagasu made history at the outset of these Winter Games as the first American woman to land the triple axel in Olympic competition. The high was tremendous, and she never quite recaptured that magic.