Iced Out: The End is Near -- the Medal Count, Less So

by Katie Baker


South Korean darling Kim Yu-na was an absolute stunner last night in the ladies free skate, shattering her own world record score and twirling her way to the gold. Aerial ski jumper Jeret Peterson-known assonantly as “Speedy”-landed a “Cirque du Soleil on skis” move called the Hurricane that he had not successfully stuck in competition since 2007; he won a silver. The Canadian women’s hockey team boozily Owned The Podium (and almost Drove The Zamboni) after winning their third Olympic gold. And still, all I could think about as I lounged on the couch and let the NBC broadcast team play cat’s cradle with my heartstrings was: how the hell did the US go one-two in the Nordic combined!?

I had long assumed that the United States just wasn’t in the mix when it came to these types of endurance-based competitions that require spacious lungs, strong bones, a healthy body and a presiding cultural preference for biathlons over NASCAR. And you know, I wasn’t wrong: it was only about a week ago that Johnny Spillane’s silver medal in the “normal hill” Nordic combined gave the United States only its third medal of any color in any Nordic event, ever. (The other two were a cross-country silver in 1976 and a ski jumping bronze in 1924; those two sports, incidentally, are what the Nordic combined… combines.)

Spillane picked up his second silver yesterday in the “large hill” event despite falling on a late turn as he headed into the stadium for the final lap. Seconds ahead of him, winning the US’s first-ever Nordic gold, was Billy Demong. It was a few days earlier than the February 27 date predicted by Astrology Zone to be “the luckiest day of the year” for an Aries like Demong, but consider that a rounding error: after winning the gold, he proposed to his girlfriend Katie Koczynski-smart move; there’s no way she could say no!-and then learned he’d been selected as the American flag bearer in Sunday’s closing ceremonies! Always trust content from Susan Miller.


The surprising finish for the Americans is mostly explained by nasty weather conditions that rolled in during the ski jump portion of the competition, hampering the jumps of the top medal contenders who were scheduled to jump near the end of the lineup. “It’s a joke,” complained Magnus Moan, of Norway, whose severely wind-challenged jump hoisted upon him an insurmountable cross country start position of 28th place.

But regardless of the “rogue wind” that made its mark on the competition, there’s no denying that Demong, Spillane and teammate Todd Lodwick (who, Demong explained, effectively positioned himself to prevent “those strong guys like Hannu (Finland’s Manninen) and (Germany’s Bjoern) Kircheisen” from moving up to threaten the top US skiers) earned their success in Vancouver via more conventional paths. In an outstanding piece on the devoted teamwork of the Nordic team, ESPN’s Bonnie Ford quotes gold medalist Demong saying:

“We know that as a small sport in a big country, we need to be together to push each other … That’s what makes us strong, not only on the playing field — we’re a band of brothers. We spend upwards of 250 days a year together. At 29 years of age, I was reflecting today … that I’ve probably spent more nights in a hotel room with Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick than I spent with my mother.

It’s the group that has made us good. It started with Todd being able to break the mold and say, ‘You know what, Americans can be good at this sport. I’m not gonna take history as an example.”

I can think of two Skiers Who Shall Not Be Named who could maybe learn a thing or two. The United States has not won the overall medal count at a Winter Olympics since 1932, and the Germans have not lost it since 1994. It remains to be seen what the final tally will be-currently, the US leads by six-but the performance of the US at these games has been remarkable. More significantly, in this age of pre-hype and high expectations and saturated storylines and knowing projections, it was unexpected. And it is guys like Demong and Spillane who are the unfamiliar faces behind the tally.


* * *

I have that weird feeling that I got the end of my senior year in college: I am having so much fun with these Olympics, but can’t wait for them to be over. I’m ready to break free of these primetime-y shackles, but I’m going to miss them when they’re gone. A few thoughts on what we’ve seen over this second week.

• Shut up with the moralizing about the Canadian women’s hockey team’s celebration. OMG SHE IS UNDERAGE shut up shut up shut up. If you want to, like, make fun of how they look in the pictures, I’m obviously fine with that.

• Setting aside the heartbreaking story of Joannie Rochette, which had me doubled over in tears every time her face appeared on the screen, I could maybe have used a little more intrigue in last night’s figure skating I think? Not to take anything away from the talented ladies, but everything went just a little too smoothly. Even the mediocre Americans skated relatively flawless routines. The drama was lessened, really, by Yu-na’s unprecedented dominance as well as a scoring system so convoluted that attempts to explain it are headlined “The Futile Search for Understanding” and go something like this:

Compare that to the also excellent but significantly lower scoring program from Mao, where the early triple axel-double toeloop received only a 0.60 GOE score, as opposed to Kim’s 2.00. That’s a significant difference — 1.4 points out of the 4.7-point difference between them is the quality of the execution of the combination jump, despite the fact that neither one of them fell down, which is how many of those of us with very little knowledge judge good and bad jumps.

Oof. I think I actually miss the corrupt Soviet judges.


• The Netherlands’ Sven Kramer, on the other hand, probably wishes that his race had been just as boring. Instead of speedskating to the gold that was roundly assumed to be his, the 23-year old Dutch celebrity was disqualified when his coach Gerard Kemkers got distracted by his clipboard and mistakenly instructed him to switch lanes. In a country like Holland, where speedskating is a national obsession, the terrible gaffe will reverberate for generations to come. “We call a pure blunder ‘a Hilbert’,” said Dutch speedskating correspondent John Volkers, referring to Holland’s previous “poster boy for speedskating misfortune” Hilbert van der Duim, who once blamed bird poop for a catastrophic fall. “It will now be replaced by ‘a Kramer’ or ‘a Kemkers’.”

• The only thing that keeps my attention in the “sliding” events is when they do the TV trick of superimposing one racer on top of another. (They do it in skiing too.) I love that!

• Former tennis pro turned commentator Mary Carillo’s role as human guinea pig-”she dressed in a buffalo check plaid jacket and cackled loudly as she watched a logging truck do wheelies in the Canadian outback,” just as one example-has been creeping me out. Who does NBC think she is, Emily Yoffe?

• Credit (or, more likely from your perspective, blame) for my interest in the Nordic events goes to color commentator Chad Salmela, who managed to get me excited about cross-country and the biathlon through his Gus Johnson-esque enthusiasm levels. I’ve done some low level stalking of Salmela and learned that he is, among other things, the cross country coach at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN; a real estate agent in same; pretty freaking adorable; and amusingly candid:

At the Olympic games, NBC tries to approach it in the commentary aspect as a neutral call. Their policy is that it’s not “us,” it’s “the Americans.” In fact, in the first show of Torino, I said “we’re doing really well today,” and the producer came through the headset to say “knock it off.” I did it again later in the show, and he got really mad.

• Speaking of “the Americans,” I’m like incredibly nervous about US hockey going on right now even though the US is leading Finland 6–0 and honestly I don’t want to jinx anything by even discussing it right now. In fact, why are you even still reading? You should be watching the game. It would be tremendously tremendous if you would make sure to cheer for “us.”

Katie Baker can’t wait to graduate from Olympics school!