Saturday, February 22, 2014

Day 14 of the Sochi Olympics

Day 14 of the Sochi Olympics, 21Feb14 Fri:

It was another spectacular day of exciting competition on Day 14 of the Sochi Olympics:

First off, what a spectacular semifinal match between Canada and the US in men's hockey.  It may not have been a gold medal match, but it sure felt like it with the way the two rival teams fought each other.  Speed, power, physical, aggressive, it was quite an explosive match between the powerhouses.  Scoreless and evenly matched in the first period, Canada would score a goal in the second period, then fiercely hold on to that one goal lead through the final third period, winning the match 1-0 and move on to the gold medal final against Sweden.  The US has to face Finland and battle for consolation bronze.

And good news continues for Canada:

In the unpredictable, chaotic, high flying, crash prone sport of freestyle skicross, the Canadian women survived the hectic elimination qualifying runs for Marielle Thompson to edge out teammate Kelsey Serwa, to take gold and silver respectively.  Sweden's Anna Holmlund won the bronze.  With this gold win, Canada now has sets a record of 4 golds in freestyle skiing at a single winter Olympics--women's freestyle skicross, women's ski slopestyle, and men's and women's moguls.  Add the two silvers from the men's and the women's moguls, the bronze in women's ski slopestyle, the silver in men's ski halfpipe, and silver in women's skicross, it makes a record 9 medals for Canada in a single discipline, becoming the powerhouse in the freestyle skiing discipline.

The good news continues for Canada as the Canadian men successfully defend their Vancouver 2010 title and take their third consecutive Olympics gold in curling.  The Brits take silver, and Sweden overcomes China to take bronze.

In women's slalom, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin puts up 2 fantastic runs to win the gold, beating out Marlies Schild of Austria, who finishes in silver.  Another Austrian, Kathrin Zettel, takes the bronze.  Shiffrin delivers the US the second gold alpine medal at these Olympics, after Ted Ligety won earlier in men's giant slalom.

Inside at the fast and chaotic world of short track speed skating, Victor An, former South Korean Olympics champion, delivers his adopted country Russia another gold medal in the men's 500m.  And he did it by proving why he was still a powerful competitor after all these years of racing.  The race started with An in 3rd, but he planned his move and in the last lap of the race, found the gaps, avoided a crash, and made his move and took the lead, beating out Daijing Wu of China.

China gets silver and Charle Cournoyer of Canada takes bronze.

Meanwhile in the women's 1000m, South Korea's Seung-Hi Park took the lead and held it all the way to gold.  China's Kexin Fan comes from 4th to overtakes American Jessica Smith and Suk-Hee Shim of South Korea for silver.  Suk-Hee Shim takes bronze.

It looked like a disappointing shutout for the Americans in short track speed skating this Olympics, but the American men finally break through and win the silver in men's 5000m relay, with Eddy Alvarez, J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling and Jordan Malone.  With gold medal favorites South Korea and Canada out of the semifinals, the strongest team was Russia, led by Victor An, and consisting of Semion Elistratov, Vladimir Grigorev, and Ruslan Zakharov.  Right from the first lap, China and Netherlands crashed, leaving the race for gold between Russian and the US.  And the US knew it could not keep up with An, so they knew they had to skate their fastest and cleanest to hold on to silver.  China recovers for the bronze.

It has to be a strange feeling for An, 28, to win all these medals for Russia (2 individual golds-500m & 1000m, relay gold, a bronze-1500m) and see his former countrymen, South Korea, leaving Sochi with no medals in short track speed skating on the men's side.  No doubt, there is all ready controversy in South Korea about An's accomplishments here vs the failure of the South Korean men's team.  Victor An held a press conference, where the shy speed skater tried to clear the air.  After winning golds in Torino 2006, he went on to win numerous times on the world circuit until he was injured and took time off to recover.  By the time he was fit for competition, he was passed over for Vancouver 2010, as the South Korean federation believed they had better skaters.  The South Korean speed skating organization favored splitting up their teams to train under separate coaches, leading to a lot of fierce competition and infighting, creating animosity and a very contentious atmosphere, that caused An to feel uncomfortable and consider quitting.  After Vancouver 2010, An's short track speed skating club was disbanded, and all the other teams were full, no one wanted to give An a place among them.  But still feeling he had more in him to compete at the Olympics and in pursuit of that dream, An took up Russia's offer and became a Russian citizen to compete for Russia.  Since South Korea doesn't allow dual citizenship, he made the difficult choice to give up his South Korean citizenship.

Since then, the normally shy skater had to bear the media frenzy over his choice.  But at the press conference, he made no disparaging remarks towards South Korea's male team, out of respect to them.  This is the worst performance of South Korea's men's speed skating team ever at the Olympics, leaving the Olympics with no medals on their side; the women doing much better.  There is no doubt that Victor An has elevated the sport of short track speed skating in Russia, with tickets sold for the first time just for practice event and live television carried the sport for the first time.  Russia has embraced its newest hero and adopted son, as the crowds cheered and chanted for Victor An, even louder than they did for Adelina Sotnikova when she won Russia's first gold in women's figure skating in the same building just the night before.

I am happy for Victor An, who made a difficult choice to leave his homeland and find a new place that would allow him to follow his dreams.  I wonder though, if he will continue to race, with the next winter games at PyeongChang, in South Korea 2018.  I hope to see him there, but I wonder how the South Koreans will treat him.  I would hope they would welcome him home and respect his choice to find a way to achieve his dream and follow his heart.  It's never easy to leave one's home but it's even harder to leave one's dreams.  And I congratulate An for overcoming so many challenges in order to achieve his Olympics dream.  He is truly one the best short track speed skaters to ever come out of the sport.

The most emotional win today belonged to the Ukrainian women who skied and shot their way to the top in the biathlon 4x6km relay.  Olena Pidhrushna crossed the finish line first to allow her country to claim the top podium spot.  Twin sisters Valj and Vita Semerenko, and Juliya Dzhyma completed the Ukrainian team, who out skied Russia to take the gold.  The winning credit belongs to Juliya Dzhyma, who started the 2nd leg of the race with a 6.7 second deficit, that grew to 15.8 seconds; but by the time she finished her leg, she had given the Ukraine the lead, a lead they would hold on to finish on top! 

Russia's Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva had the lead through the first and second legs; but Ekaterina Shumilova third leg wasn't so smooth, putting Russia back in third, before Olga Vilukhina put in a great effort to secure Russia the silver.  Norway's  Fanny Welle-Strand Horn started the first leg, and it was Tiril Eckhoff who put in a great effort and worked up from eighth to third in the second leg; Ann Kristin Aafedt Flatland maintained that spot, and then Tora Berger finished to secure the bronze.

This was Ukraine's first ever gold at Sochi, a second medal after Vita Semerenko took bronze in the women's sprint earlier.  It came at a time when Ukraine is aflame with rioting and the deaths of anti-government protesters at the hands of the government.  More than half of the Ukrainian delegation has returned home to support the protesters.  Those that remained behind hoped for peace.  And as the Ukrainian women won gold, their celebration was tempered with thoughts of the people back home, struggling for peace and standing up for a better Ukraine.  They remembered those who've lost their lives and held a minute of silence during the press conference, to honor the memory of those who were lost in the struggle.  It's hard enough to win an Olympics medal, let alone a gold medal, but it must be so much harder to do it when your home is aflame with rioting and death.  I congratulate the Ukrainian women on their win and I offer them my sincerest hope that the turmoil and suffering back home comes to a peaceful end soon.

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