It was another spectacular day on Day 12 of the Sochi Olympics. There were so many thrills and spills that punctuated the stellar rise and agonizing fall of the athletes who fought today for Olympics glory.
First up, the bad news for the host nation, Russia. In men's hockey, Russia's hope of ending a 22 year gold medal drought came to a crushing halt by the formidable Finland in the quarterfinals. Early in the first of 3 periods, Russia scored a goal and led the game 0-1. But then the Finns rallied and attacked, coming from behind and scoring 3 goals! Then the Finns held off the Russians for the last 2 periods, ending the game with a victory of 3-1! It is a crushing blow to the hopes of the host nation, as this was the sport they had hoped to win the gold. And they were considered a top contender. But the truth is, Finland has always done better than Russia in international competitions. Part of the reason is that while both teams are stacked with professional players in the American National Hockey League, the Finns train and play together as a team, while the Russian stars do not play as a team, rather, just a collection of stars. The Finns move on to battle top seeded Sweden in the semifinals. The Nordic countries are set to play each other on Friday, 21 Feb 2014. The winner will advance to the final to fight for gold.
Meanwhile, Canada survived a scary encounter with Cinderella story Latvia in their quarterfinal match. Latvia was not expected to make it this far, but the tiny nation's team pulled off a stunning win against Switzerland on Tuesday. With no break, the Latvians faced defending Vancouver 2010 gold medalists powerhouse Canada, and managed to come from a 1-0 Canada lead and score a goal to tie Canada 1-1 in the first period! The Latvians incredibly hold off the Canadians through the second period, and keep fighting through the third period, right up until the Canadians manged to score in the last 7 minutes of the game in power play. The Canadians sigh relief and the Latvians come away with pride and admiration for the amazing fight they put up against Canada. Canada moves on to the semifinals on Friday to fight the US, who won over Czech Republic 5-2 in their quarterfinal match. The Friday semis are looking to be very exciting as both teams are the heavy favorites for gold.
Moving on to the other sports that were contested today:
Oh, what a stunning race in the men's cross country team sprints. Of all the winter games events, the cross country sprints are the hardest and most demanding! Why? In the team sprints, the teams are made up of two skiers; the first skier does one lap around the course, then he taps the second skier to run his lap; and they continue doing this until they both have done it 3 times, for a full 6 laps for both skiers. And each course is 1.4 kilometers for women and 1.6 kilometers for men. That means each skier has to ski that distance 3 times! The first one across the finish line wins. What makes the sport incredibly difficult is that the skiers have a qualifying semifinal in which the top 5 teams advance; then after only a 30 minute break, they race the final. That's crazy! That means the teams have to balance out speed and endurance, try to make it in the final by finishing in the top 5, at the same time, hope they have saved enough energy to race the final in half an hour!
Think about this: At the summer Olympics, 800m track sprinters race to qualify for a spot in the finals; then they take a day off to rest and race the finals the next day. Or think of 4x100m medley relay in swimming, consisting of 4 swimmers, 1 does the backstroke, 1 does the breaststroke, 1 does the butterfly, and last 1 does the freestyle/front crawl. Now imagine the first swimmer just got done with the 1st leg doing the backstroke, now gets out of the pool and cheers as the second swimmer does the breaststroke; but guess what, when that second swimmer comes back, the first swimmer has to jump back in the pool and do the butterfly, and when he comes back, the second swimmer has to finish with the front crawl. That's the craziness that is cross country team sprints! The two skiers have to ski fast enough in the semifinal to make the top five and qualify for the final. Then they have to hope they have enough energy left over to race the final that starts in just 30 minutes after the qualifying race!
It's a very demanding and exhausting sport! If you look at the skiers in the finals, you'll notice that they shake their arms and legs during the race. That's because the skiers are feeling the burn and exhaustion. Have you ever worked so hard, doing something so physical and tiring that your muscles burn and your body slows down and you can't move fast? That's the lactic acid build up in the muscles from working hard and so fast that the body's usual aerobic energy supply via oxygen can't keep up with the body's energy demands, so the muscles rely on anaerobic energy production by converting pyruvate to lactate to allow for glucose breakdown for energy production. It is a temporary measure, usually meant for emergencies and heavy lifting, and lasts anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes, before the lactic acid build up disrupts the cellular and metabolic activities, causing the body to slow down; it's necessary to protect the muscles from permanent damage from extreme overexertion. It's a defense mechanism evolved from the days when man had to evade predators, say suddenly coming up a saber tooth tiger and having to scramble up a tree or flee really fast.
In the men's cross country team sprint, the drama began when the Russian team took the lead; Nikita Kriukov and Maxim Vylegzhanin were expected to win gold. But Norway's Petter Northug stepped up the pace and took the lead. Then as Petter Northug was going up a hill, his right ski pole breaks, and he just dropped that broken ski pole down in the way of the following skiers, as soon as he was given a replacement ski pole! And while it looked like the Norwegians were on their way to gold, right before the last exchange, Norway's Ola Vigen Hattestad, who won the gold in the individual sprint, lost energy and could not keep up the increased pace of the race. Petter Northug of Norway would make a valiant effort to chase down the lead pack of Russia, Finland, and Germany, with Sweden just slightly behind the top three.
And as the racers started coming down the final hill in the last lap, Finland's Sami Jauhojaervi pulls ahead and crosses the lane coming downhill right in front of Germany's Tim Tscharnke. Tim Tscharnke's momentum caused his skis to bump into Jauhojaervi in front of him, causing Tscharnke to lose his balance then fall over and almost knock out Russia's Nikita Kriukov, who has to slow down to avoid crashing!
Naturally, the Germans protested, but the jury ruled in favor of Finland, stating it was not an intentional trip by Finland, just one of those things that happens in the race; Russia grumbles because they want Finland disqualified so they can get the gold, but the jury and International Ski Federation ruling stands. Oh, the agony for Germany! Kazakhstan is eigth; Czech Republic is ninth; France did not finish the race. So Finland's Sami Jauhojaervi and Iivo Niskanen take gold, Finland's first gold at Sochi. Russia's Maxim Vylegzhanin and Nikita Kriukov settle for silver; and Sweden seizes the moment and Emil Joensson and Teodor Peterson claim the bronze.
And with this bronze win, Sweden's Emil Joensson is the luckiest and cleverest athlete at the Sochi Olympics, because he all ready won a bronze last week in the individual sprint, when a fall also took out the top three competitors, allowing him to find the energy and power through the pain to get bronze! It's not enough to be the strongest; you have to be smart too and adapt to the challenges and seize the moment and make the most of it.
Over on the women's side of the cross country sprint, it was a Nordic sweep, as Marit Bjoergen and Flugstad Oestberg pull ahead and deliver Norway the gold. Finland's Kerttu Niskanen and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen take the silver. And Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson won the bronze medal. It is a relief for Norway, and Bjoergen adds this gold to her skiathlon gold won at the beginning of the games. Marit Bjoergen also took the time to credit the Norwegian ski waxing team for her and her teammate's success and defend the ski waxers against the unfair criticisms they've received over Norway's poor performances over the last cross country events. It's not the ski waxers fault if the weather changes and if the athletes don't match the stength and health of their competitors. A bad workman blames his tools.
Meanwhile, American history is made in the men's giant slalom, where the skiers make two runs racing downhill and zigzag around poles, and the fastest combined time wins. Ted Ligety became the first American to win gold in the men's giant slalom at the Olympics. His first run put him 0.93 seconds ahead of next skier. And even though his second run placed him as 14th fastest, his combined time with that huge lead in the first run was enough to get him the gold.
Ligety won a surprise gold in men's combined at Torino 2006 and is the current world champion in the giant slalom. France's Steve Missillier, who skied the fastest second run, wins silver, and his fellow countryman Alexis Pinturault takes bronze.
The Americans picked up more medals in women's bobsled that put the US at the top of the medal board. Lauryn Williams and Elana Meyers put in a spectacular run to get the Americans to the top spot. They were poised to finish in first, but in the end, they hit the walls on the way down the final run and it landed them in silver. Canada's Kallie Humphries and Heather Moyse, current world champions, successfully defend their Vancouver 2010 title, taking the gold. The American team of Aja Evans and Jamie Greubel win bronze. It is the first time two American women bobsleds have medaled in the Olympics. Even more impressive, with her silver win, Lauryn Williams becomes the first US woman and fifth athlete overall to win medals in different sports at the both the Summer and Winter Olympics--having won a 4x100m relay gold at London 2012 and a 100m silver at Athens 2004.
At the parallel giant slalom, the snowboarders make two runs racing downhill around gates/poles; two snowboarders race side by side along two parallel courses down a hill; one course marked with red poles; the next with blue. After the first run, the racers switch courses. The winner of first run determines the start time of the second run; in the second run, the person with the fastest time from the first run starts first, and how much time that person beat the second person is added to a delay start for the second person in the second race. That means if racer 1 beat racer 2 by 3 seconds in the first run; then in the second run, racer 1 starts first and racer 2 has to wait 3 seconds before starting the final run.
Meanwhile, just minutes later on the men's side, Alena Zavarzina's husband, American expat Vic Wild, delivered Russia, his adopted country, the gold, beating Switzerland's Nevin Galmarini, who fell in the final race and ended up with silver. Zan Kosir of Slovenia beat out Patrick Kussler of Germany for the bronze.
There is buzz on the husband and wife team of Vic Wild and Alena Zavarzina winning medals in the parallel giant slalom. How did this American end up representing and winning Russia the medal? Simple: Funding and Love. He did not have the support and resources needed to compete in his sport, and he considered quitting the sport he loved. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association deem alpine snowboarding events a low priority, focusing the most of the funds to X Games sports like halfpipe and slopestyle. To compete on the circuit, Wild had to rely on funding from family and supporters, especially since there was no real financial support from the USSA.
The only American entrant in the event, Justin Reiter, didn't make it out of the qualification round, agrees that there is no support for the alpine snowboarders; Reiter himself has to find his own funding to compete in his sport and has to live in his car to save money! So it was very mixed emotions that Reiter experienced, very happy for his long time friend and fellow alpine snowboarder to win gold, but also frustrated with the lack of support from the USSA. Vic Wild met his wife and married her in 2011, and he was approached by the Russians to compete for them. In Russia, he found not only a new family, but a country that actually supported his efforts, and he repaid that support by delivering his adopted country the gold.
I am quite happy for Vic Wild. It isn't the first time an athlete has represented a different country to have a chance to medal at the Olympics. No, I am happy for Vic Wild because he found the support he needed to compete and win and he found a partner to share his life with, even if it is in a foreign country. And I hope those people at USSA pay attention, because it's embarrassing to realize that the lack of support cost them a medal and it continues to hurt other athletes who can do so much better if they got the attention and funding they need to compete.
Back to the field, the biathlon mixed relay competition made its Olympics debut. In this event, a team of 2 women and 2 men compete together. The order is woman-woman-man-man. The women ski 3 loops of 2km then stop twice at the shooting range to fire at 5 targets, firing prone the first time, then standing the next time. The men ski 3 loops of 2.5km and also stop twice to shoot. And like the regular biathlon, athletes can reload up to 3 times and a missed shot costs a 150m penalty loop.
Norway's team of Tora Berger and Tiril Eckhoff got off to a great start; giving the men, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who skied the third leg of the race, and Emil Hegle Svendsen, a great lead to win the gold. This is Bjoerndalen's historic 13th medal, making him the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time; this gold adds to the 10km sprint gold he won on the first day of the games. The silver was claimed by the Czech Republic team of Veronika Vítková, Gabriela Soukalová, Jaroslav Soukup, and Ondřej Moravec. Italy's team of Dorothea Wierer, Karin Oberhofer, Dominik Windisch, and Lukas Hofer take bronze.
Back inside the women's 5000m speed skating, Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic successfully defends her Vancouver 2010 title, beating off the Orange Crush. Ireen Wust of the Netherlands, who edged out Sablikova in 3000m race for gold, took the lead when the pair started their race; but towards the end, Sablikova finished stronger and Wust settled for silver. Carien Kleibeuker of the Netherlands took bronze.
And finally, after the ladies figure skating short program, Kim Yuna of South Korea, defending Vancouver 2010 champion, tops the leader board, followed by Russia's Adelina Sotnikova, then Italy's Carolina Kostner, all separated by less than a point. Many doubted whether Kim Yuna would skate well here, given that she skates so rarely after Vancouver 2010. But she came, she skated, and and she set the bar high for the other ladies to follow. She did have the most beautiful and flawless program; followed closely by Carolina Kostner; Adelina Sotnikova was aggressive and didn't have the same level of difficult jumps Kim Yuna had. But she was rewarded for her invigorating performance in front of the home crowd after overnight Russian teen sensation ,15-year-old Russian, Yulia Lipnitskaia fell in her program. The most disappointing and shocking fall of all was Vancouver 2010 silver medalist, Mao Asada of Japan, who fell and did not complete any of her jump combinations, landing her in 16th. The long program starts Thursday, 20 Feb 2014, and will determine the winner.
Finally, I'd like to spotlight the great work the volunteers and staff have done to ensure the Olympics are safe and enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the creativity of the organizers at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center, where the ski jumping and nordic combined events take place. If you look at where the athletes land after their jumps, the organizers got creative and had a little fun.
On sunny days, they arranged a coconut tree!
On Valentine's Day, there was a heart. But my favorite was the rainy day one, where they put out a dolphin!
Thank you for the all the hard work, volunteers and staff! More Olympics excitement to come as we wind down the last few days of competition.