PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — There was no way that they were going to catch the Norwegians, who with a day remaining in the XXIIIrd Winter Games had set a record with 38 (and counting) medals. But the US Olympic team, which topped the table in Vancouver and was one shy of the Russians in Sochi, certainly expected to finish better than fourth in the overall count behind the Germans and Canadians.
With minimal podium chances in Sunday’s men’s bobsled and women’s cross-country events the Americans were all but certain to finish with 23 medals, only nine of them gold. That’s the lowest number since they collected 13 and six in 1998 in Nagano, the last time the Games were held in Asia. It also is 14 fewer than the 37 the USOC had optimistically targeted in its internal prediction.
Were it not for the skiers, who contributed 15 medals and seven golds (four of them from snowboarders), the count would have been significantly lower. Only eight medals came from the ice sports and the only golds were produced by the women’s hockey team, whose shootout victory over Canada was the highlight of the fortnight, and by the men’s curlers, who created their own “Miracurl on Ice.”
Had the dozen reigning American world champions just made the podium here in their best events the US would have finished second. Only two of them did — the women’s hockey team and bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor.
A sport-by-sport assessment with USOC projected and actual medals in parentheses:
ALPINE SKIING (4/3): After five medals in Sochi, one of each color wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for but it wasn’t bad for what essentially was a two-woman enterprise. Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t repeat as slalom champ (or even medal) but she did take the giant slalom and won silver in the combined and Lindsey Vonn picked up a downhill bronze. The men weren’t expected to do much and they didn’t. Ted Ligety, who won the GS last time, was 15th here.
BIATHLON (1/0): After winning gold and silver at last year’s world championships, the skiing shooters were gunning for five-ringed history here. But Lowell Bailey finished 51st in the individual event after two untimely missed targets, Susan Dunklee didn’t qualify for the mass start and nobody else cracked the top 10 except for the men’s relay. Back to the starting line for Beijing.
BOBSLED (2/1): The women, who were first and third at the world championships, were hoping to get the gold that eluded them in Sochi. But Elana Meyers Taylor came in second to Germany’s Mariama Jamanka and Jamie Greubel Poser was fifth. Steve Holcomb’s death not only deprived the men of their top medal hope but left his teammates dazed and despondent. Cody Bascue finished ninth in the four-man and Justin Olsen, who had an emergency appendectomy just before the Games, was 14th in the two-man.
CROSS-COUNTRY (1/1): The gold by Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall in the women’s team sprint not only made history, it came with a bonus. Diggins, who had four individual top-six placements, was named flagbearer for the Closing Ceremony and Randall was elected to the IOC’s athletes’ commission. The men, who haven’t medaled since Bill Koch’s 1976 silver, had respectable showings in the team sprint, where Simi Hamilton and Erik Bjornsen were sixth, and in the 50-kilometer grinder, where Scott Patterson finished 11th.
CURLING (1/1): Though John Shuster’s rink had bounced back from their Sochi debacle (ninth of 10) to become medal contenders, nobody ever dreamed that they’d claim a historic gold, beating three-time defending champion Canada twice along the way. They’ll never have to buy a beer in Duluth for the rest of their lives. The women, dead last in 2014, had top-five hopes but Nina Roth’s group faded toward the end and finished eighth.
FIGURE SKATING (3/2): The bronzes by the team and dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani were expected. The Americans had hoped for something shiny from Nathan Chen but his abysmal short program kept him off the men’s podium. The 9-10-11 implosion by Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen was the worst-ever effort for the women, as was the 15th by the Knierims in pairs. Unless the US federation can prime the pipeline in the next couple of years, things won’t be much better in 2022.
FREESTYLE SKIING (9/4): While four medals was a more than respectable collection, half a dozen seemed possible until world aerials champions Jon Lillis and Ashley Caldwell failed to reach the final. Still, there was much to celebrate in the halfpipe, where David Wise and Alex Ferreira went 1-2 and Brita Sigourney took bronze and in men’s slopestyle, where Nick Goepper cashed silver.
ICE HOCKEY (1/1): It took a shootout for eternity but the women finally ended two decades of frustration by vanquishing their northern neighbors as they customarily do at the world championships but hadn’t done at the Games since Nagano. The men, tossed together last month when the NHL said nix, finished seventh but were a bounce away from the medal round as the collegians — notably Harvard’s Ryan Donato — carried the play. If the pros stay away again they should hold the Beanpot in January and send the victor to Beijing.
LUGE (2/1): One medal seemed achievable but it came from a most unlikely source. Instead of Erin Hamlin, who made the Sochi women’s podium, or World Cup medalist Summer Britcher, it was the men producing a breakthrough silver from Chris Mazdzer, who was 13th in 2014. A few clicks faster and the relay would have won bronze. At least the Yanks now are perennially in the global conversation.
NORDIC COMBINED (0/0): They were nowhere near the medals but the Americans didn’t figure to be. The four they won in Vancouver eight years ago were a once-in-a-generation splash. Something in the top 15 would have been more satisfying but Bryan Fletcher’s two 17th-place efforts still were commendable. Until the US can get closer to the podium in cross-country and jumping it’s unlikely they’ll contend in an event that commingles both.
SHORT-TRACK SPEEDSKATING (0/1): The multiple-medal days for the helmet-heads are long gone in a sport that now belongs to the world. The Americans figured they might get one from the men’s relay, which set the world record this season. It came instead from John-Henry Krueger, who won silver in the 1,000 meters. The women, who owned the track with Cathy Turner and Amy Peterson in the early days, didn’t get out of the quarters and didn’t qualify their relay.
SKELETON (0/0): There was no chance the Americans were going to make both podiums again as they did in Sochi. Matt Antoine and Katie Uhlaender hadn’t been near a World Cup podium all season and they weren’t close here, finishing 11th and 13th. Maybe they should start hanging with their British cousins, who grabbed three medals.
SKI JUMPING (0/0): It’ll be years, if not decades, until the Yanks are back on the medal stand (1924 and counting) but they made progress this time. Kevin Bickner (twice) and Sarah Hendrickson were among the top 20 and the men placed a best-ever ninth in the team event. Progress will come more quickly if the US can naturalize a few Norwegians.
SNOWBOARDING (9/7): The X-Gamers got this party started and kept it rolling until the final weekend, improving on the five medals they won in Sochi. This time they rolled a seven with halfpipe golds from Shaun White and Chloe Kim, slopestyle golds from Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson, silvers in Big Air from Kyle Mack and Anderson, and a halfpipe bronze from Arielle Gold. Uncle Sam’s kids still shred it at Olympus.
SPEEDSKATING (4/1): After their Sochi shutout the Americans thought they’d done everything right before coming here, from training camps to comfy skinsuits. They came away with a sole bronze in women’s team pursuit. Heather Bergsma, who was world champ in the 1,000 and 1,500, was eighth twice. Joey Mantia, the global mass start titlist, came ninth. Whatever the long-trackers did differently this time, it didn’t work.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.