A few Olympic things I care about, that do not involve the IOC or a Russian doping scandal …
The vote by her peers to carry the United States flag at the Closing Ceremony is evidence enough of the respect and affection the American delegation has for bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor. What a special honor for one of the enduring stars and one of the most influential (and inspirational) athletes in US Olympic history.
The Games didn’t start out like planned for Meyers Taylor, who landed in Beijing only to immediately enter COVID-19 quarantine because of a positive test. That’s tough enough for any high-level athlete, and given some of the early issues with getting quality food or training equipment for those who had to quarantine, there had to be major concern.
But that was magnified double- and triple-fold for Meyers Taylor. Most importantly, it kept her from being with her husband, fellow bobsledder (also Elana’s coach) Nic Taylor, and their son, Nico. Nico was born premature, has Down syndrome and hearing loss, and thus travels to all events with his parents as they constantly work through all of his therapies. Meyers Taylor is also still breastfeeding, which meant pumping breast milk from her quarantine room.
On top of that, the COVID test also robbed Meyers Taylor of the opportunity to carry the US flag in the Opening Ceremony, which she had been elected to do alongside curling captain John Shuster. That her teammates wanted to make up for that disappointment says so much about her popularity, and the scene when her husband told her the news following a heat for her two-woman sled was so sweet.
Meyers Taylor is more than just a good story, though. She’s a tremendous athlete, who moved on from that happy heat to earn a bronze medal with teammate Sylvia Hoffman. That fifth career medal made Meyers Taylor the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympics history. At 37, she is the oldest American woman to win a medal at the Winter Games, breaking the mark she set earlier in the week with a silver in the women’s monobob.
Across her career, Meyers Taylor raced with 41 teammates in 11 countries on 14 tracks. Harder to calculate is how many young athletes she inspired to take up the sport, one that is often popular with those who’ve succeeded in other disciplines. Meyers Taylor was a collegiate track star who made the switch to driving a bobsled, while also earning multiple advanced college degrees.
If this was it and retirement beckons — she was quoted in Beijing as saying, “There’s a good chance that it’s my last one” — carrying the flag is a fitting way to go out.
▪ As tough as it was to watch Mikaela Shiffrin struggle so much with her skiing in Beijing, the way the three-time Olympian and three-time medalist (two golds) handled her adversity was so impressive. Initially, her saga was just sad and difficult to witness, when she skied out of her first event, failed to finish in three of her best events, and finished individual events with a best of ninth place. Shiffrin was raw and honest, saying she felt she had let people down, that she felt like “a joke,” and that she didn’t understand what lessons she was supposed to take from it all.
But she also talked of the support she received from so many corners of the world, reminding us all of how important it continues to be to recognize mental health as health, and that it should be treated with the same care as any physical injury. Shiffrin, who was scheduled for a final team event early Sunday morning in Beijing, had such a difficult couple of years, and truly deserved praise for making it to the Olympics. She lost her father after he fell at home and sustained fatal injuries, heartbreaking as she often talked of their closeness and how helped her find joy in skiing. She also endured a bout of COVID.
But through it all, she stood tall, firing back at online critics, confident the slopes are where she is “meant to be.”
Given all the teenage angst and breakdowns we saw among the Russian figure skaters, it makes you realize that Shiffrin, 26, benefited from the maturity and perspective that comes with age and experience.
▪ The Shiffrin saga made me think again of something Lindsey Vonn, Olympic-skier-turned-television-commentator, told reporters back in PyeongChang: “I think the expectation of winning gold medals is pretty out of whack and I think we need to be proud of all our athletes for how much they’ve put in to be here. Medals aren’t necessarily what the Olympics are all about. The Olympics are a unifying event, one that has a profound impact on the entire world. So to quantify it on how many medals you have is not appropriate and doesn’t respect the athletes in what they put in.”
▪ As gratifying as it was to see Lindsey Jacobellis finally take gold in snowboard cross 16 years after making her Olympic debut in Turin (when a final trick attempt cost her the gold), seeing her help 40-year-old teammate Nick Baumgartner take gold in mixed team snowboard cross just a day after a mistake cost him a medal and left him devastated was equally fun.
▪ Message to Hilary Knight, the 31-year-old US hockey forward who said after the gold medal loss to Canada: “It feels like we let our country down.”
▪ OK, one more observation after the figure skating drama. The US team lost its appeal to have a medal ceremony for the team event, with the IOC getting its way to hold on to medals until the doping case of Kamila Valieva is fully adjudicated, knowing Russia will never give back gold once it gets it. Thought of the men’s basketball team in 1972, which wanted no part of the silver medal it won after referees robbed them to give Russia gold. Fifty years later, the skaters want their silver medals.
▪ The skating officially came to an end with Saturday’s pairs final, and politics aside, the win by home team China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who defeated the Russian runners-up by .63 of a point, was thrilling. Skating to a personal favorite song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel, it was happy redemption for the pair who lost gold by less than half a point four years ago.