What a spectacular day 2 of the Sochi Olympics! Relief and Regrets. Stunning Flights and Frightening Crashes. It is the changing of the guard as the new take over from the old order.
First off, what a relief for host country Russia to finally make it on the medals board on day 2 of the Sochi Olympics.
Let's begin with the new sport of team figure skating, which actually started on Thursday 8 Feb 14, the day before the opening ceremony. You're probably thinking, what the hell is team figure skating? And I'll tell you. Team figure skating means that each country can send a man, a woman, a pair in figure skating, and a pair in ice dancing to compete for a total team score. Like regular figure skating, the competition is divided into 2 parts: the short program and the free skate/dance. After the teams each skate, they are awarded points based on their standings: First place gets 10 points, second gets 9, etc. Only the top 5 teams move on.
Then comes the free skate/dance part. It is at this point that the teams may swap in 2 skaters (or 2 pairs of skaters) for the free skate. Why? Because the skaters still have to compete in their own individual competitions coming up in a few days. This comes down to strategy. The pairs skaters only have 3 days to rest between the team event and their own pair event. Each country plans according to its strengths and weaknesses.
Some countries like Germany have a weak team, but their pair, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, have a very good shot at winning the pairs event, so they did not take part in the team event, to save their strength for the pairs event coming in a few days. The US has a strong women and ice dancing component, but a weak pairs and not so strong men's side. Swapping out the men and women gives each skater a chance to rest, but Charlie White and Meryl Davis, the top ice dancing team, had no choice but to perform both the short and free dance portion in order to give the US a shot at making it on the podium. Russia has only has Yevgeny Plushenko to represent the men's side, so he had no choice but to skate both the short and free skate; but their pairs, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, have a solid shot at gold in the pairs event, so they were swapped out for the free skate to give them a break for the upcoming pairs event. Canada's weakness is its women figure skaters compared to the other countries, but the men, pairs, and ice dancers are solid strong.
So after the spectacular performance given by Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko followed by the disastrous fall of America's Jeremy Abbott (who seems to bomb during international competitions, like Vancouver 2010), the stage was set for Russia to take the lead, followed by Canada, and the US having to fight off Japan and Germany and France and Italy just to make it to the second round. The commanding performances of the Russian women, mens, and pairs gave them a guaranteed gold; Canada's powerhouse men, pairs, and ice dancers gave them the silver, and the US, thanks to strong ice dancers and women earned them the bronze. So Congratulations Russia on finally making it on the medal podium.
You may be wondering, why the hell is there even a team figure skating event?. Simple: It's all about the money! Sponsors and advertisers are noticing a significant drop in figure skating popularity. Really, figure skating used to be the jewel and most popular event of the Winter Olympics. But now, the snowboarders have exploded on the scene and have commanded attention from day 1 to the last day of competition. And before the snowboarders arrived, most people only tuned in to watch the Winter Olympics in the last week just for the figure skating and hockey. So in order to boost figure skating's popularity (and bring in the advertising dollars), the International Olympics Committee created team figure skating to lure in more viewers with spending money. But let's face it. This team event is also good for some countries like the US, which has a very strong bench of talent, and this team event means more opportunities for figure skaters to earn more medals the way summer athletes like swimmers, gymnasts, and track & field athletes do.
But now let's move on to the snowboarders. Another sport making its debut: Ladies Snowboarding Slopestyle, where the women race down from the top of a hill, sliding on two obstacles and making 3 high jumps in the air turning tricks (no, not those kinds of tricks!) and try to land on their feet on the way to the finish line. It was such a dramatic and thrilling competition. The heavily favored and noted tree hugger (no seriously, she's been known to hug trees before competing and she likes to meditate) American Jamie Anderson looked like she was out of medal contention after the first run. But her second run was stunning as she soared above the rest to reach the gold. Finland's Enni Rukajarvi reaches the silver. And Jenny Jones of Great Britain claims the bronze, winning the first medal for Britain at the Games and becoming the first British athlete to ever win a medal on the snow!
If you think this sport is easy and fun, think again. Snowboard icon American Shaun White pulled out of the men's event citing danger and injuries and wanting to concentrate more on his other event. Look at what happened in the women's event to Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic:
Yes, she fell hard, hit her head on the ice, cracked her helmet and was basically a rag doll flopping down the hill and laying still for a few seconds while medical personnel rushed to her aid. It was a truly frightening and ghastly crash. Luckily, she survived and under her own power finished her run to the cheers of the crowd and competitors, who embraced her at the finish line. It is a relief to know that she is fine, unlike the others, who have been seriously hurt on what the athletes call the "Sketchy Sochi Slopestyle" course.
And while some athletes breathed a sigh of relief, others were faced with regrets. In Men's Downhill, heavily favored American Bode Miller, who had been having outstanding trial runs leading up to the event and emerged as the man to beat, failed to make it to the podium, finishing 8th. His rival and pre event favored and World Cup downhill standings leader, Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, ended up in 4th. Both Miller and Svindal are Olympic medal winners from Vancouver 2010 and are World Cup winners as well. But it is a whole new set of fresh faces who took to the podium.
23 year old Matthias Mayer of Austria, who had never finished higher than 5th in a downhill and was thought to only have a chance to medal at the next Olympics, pulls out the fastest time and claims the gold. What a relief for Austria, the skiing powerhouse who left the Vancouver 2010 Olympics with zero Alpine medals for the first time in its Olympics history. It is an unbelievable experience for Mayer, whose heroes include his father, Helmut, won silver in Calgary 1988 in the Super G, Austrian legend Hermann Maier, and Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal. And grabbing silver is a very happy and surprised Christof Innerhofer of Italy. Norway's Kjetil Jansrud takes the bronze.
It's always a joy to see new faces rise to the occasion and win at challenges against the toughest and most skilled veterans. That's the wonderful thing about the Olympics! Anything can happen, and in the fast and fickle world of downhill skiing, winners emerge from the most unlikely and under appreciated athletes.
And a new trio of fresh faces throws off Austria's grip on men's Ski Jumping, where the athletes basically slide down a steep slope and jump into the air and hope the currents and their strength can carry them far across the finish way down below. It helps to be thin (the less you weigh, the lighter you are) but technique is also important (because if you apply proper aerodynamic technique with the proper body positioning, you fly much farther!).
With only 3 competitors left on the Normal Hill Ski Jumping, Austria looked set to win first and second. But those last 3 competitors came out flying and soared higher and further than the others, knocking Austria off the podium, and landing Kamil Stoch of Poland in the gold spot, with Slovenia's Peter Prevc winning silver, and Norway's Anders Bardal taking the bronze! What's impressive was Stoch woke up that morning with a headache and a high temperature, feeling ill, not sure if he would be able to compete; but the doctors worked him over and helped the Polish jumper recover and go on to end the day with a gold medal.
It's a dangerous sport, as Slovenia's Robert Kranjec, bronze medalist at Salt Lake 2002, hurt his knee in a terrifying fall during qualifications, leading to his withdrawal from the event.
Hopefully, he will recover for the Large Hill event on Saturday. But even more exciting, the women finally debut tomorrow, Tuesday! The first ever women's Normal Hill Ski Jumping event will take place at the Olympics. And it's about damn time! For years, the women were barred from participating due to sexism and ignorance. Now they make their debut and I can't wait for them to compete tomorrow!
And speaking of incredible women, over at the Ladies 3000m speed skating event, the Orange Crush continues in the battle of Olympic champions. Netherlands 2006 Torino gold medalist Ireen Wust raced to first place, taking gold from Vancouver 2010 gold medalist and heavily favored Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic, leaving Sablikova the silver. Russia's Olga Graf takes the bronze, to the thrill of the host country.
Drama over in the Men's Skiathlon 15 km classic + 15 km free! Dario Cologna of Switzerland, recovering from a recent ankle surgery, holds off defending Vancouver 2010 champion, Marcus Hellner of Sweden, to win the gold. Hellner settles for silver, and in the frantic sprint to the finish, Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway edges Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia by 0.1 seconds to take the bronze!
The Russians are challenging the bronze result, claiming that Sundby impeded Vylegzhanin, but a race jury found that Sundby was all ready ahead of Vylegzhanin by a few meters and did not impede the Russian. The appeal now awaits the International Ski Federation decision.
While other former champions gave way to the new, two Vancouver 2010 champions successfully defend their titles:
Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia retains her Olympic champion title in Women's 7.5km biathlon sprint, with a perfect shooting score and finishing the race, winning gold, adding to her Vancouver 2010 gold and a Vancouver 2010 silver in the 10k pursuit. Russia's Olga Vilukhina trailed the winner to silver, and Ukraine's Vita Semerenko ends with a bronze.
In men's luge, it is the changing of the guards, as Germany's Felix Loch, the youngest man ever to win gold in luge at Vancouver 2010, successfully defends his Olympics title and claims gold in Sochi! At 24 years old, and with a string of world championships dating back to when he was only 18 (and becoming the youngest luge world champion), Loch has been acknowledge by the greats as the future and rising dominant force in luge.
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The other veteran who won bronze, legendary Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler, aka "The Cannibal", at 40 years old, makes history as the most decorated man in Olympics luger history, and makes Olympics history as the first person ever to medal in 6 straight Winter Olympics (having won bronze in Lillehammer 1994, a silver in Nagano 1998, a gold at Salt Lake 2002, a gold at Turin 2006, a bronze at Vancouver 2010, and now a bronze at Sochi 2014). It is an amazing bronze win for the legendary luger with one of the longest and most decorated career in luge history. And when he won the bronze at Sochi, Zoeggeler was moved by crowd cheering loudly in his final run at the luge and his voice faltered as he expressed his gratitude to the legions of fans who've followed his long career.
And as the sun sets on the glorious careers of some of the legendary veterans in the Olympics, a new day dawns on the rising stars who will make their own journey to greatness, and I am fortunate to witness these great new beginnings on a world stage at the Olympics. Well done, athletes! I can't wait to see more.