February 23, 2014 in Sports

Unsuspecting stars sparked U.S. effort in Sochi

David Wharton Los Angeles Times
David Phillip photo

Gold medal winner Sage Kotsenburg, of the United States, holds up his medal during the medal ceremony for the Snowboard Men’s Slopestyle competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.
(Full-size photo)

SOCHI, Russia – It makes sense that a little-known snowboarder from Utah via Coeur d’Alene set the tone for the U.S. team at the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

“I don’t know what to call it,” Sage Kotsenburg said. “I have no idea what’s actually going on.”

His surprising gold medal in the new slopestyle event started a chain reaction.

With the Americans getting very little from their biggest names – including Shaun White, Shani Davis and the men’s hockey team – a group of lesser-known athletes lifted the team.

So call it the “No-Name Games.”

Or, as ski slopestyle champion Joss Christensen said, “This is pretty crazy.”

American athletes faced tremendous expectations heading into Sochi. They won a U.S.-record 37 medals in Vancouver four years ago and some predictions had them testing that mark – if everything went right.

But this time the Russians grabbed all of the momentum, parlaying their home-court advantage into a total of 33 medals, including 13 golds. The U.S. finished second with 28, with nine gold.

American officials pointed out – repeatedly – that winter sports have become more competitive around the world and that more countries are reaching the podium.

Even if statistics over the past four games don’t show any seismic shift, the U.S. Olympic Committee expressed satisfaction with the team’s performance.

The medal count “is indicative that things are alive and well in the United States,” said Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive. “I don’t think it’s a step back at all.”

Certainly the new kids on the block showed their stuff.

Sochi marked the debut of 12 Olympic events, and the U.S. medaled in seven of them. That included team figure skating, women’s ski slopestyle and halfpipe, and men’s ski halfpipe.

Some of the winners might have been familiar to fans of action sports, but their victories in Russia introduced them to a broader audience.

Asked about Christensen’s leading a sweep in the new ski slopestyle, U.S. coach Skogen Sprang said: “It was one of the wild dreams in the back of your head somewhere.”

Athletes in a few of the traditional sports came through too. The sliders won seven medals and the Alpine skiers, after a sluggish start, finished with a respectable five.

But things were less dreamy elsewhere.

A month before the opening ceremony, defending women’s downhill champion Lindsey Vonn withdrew, unable to recover from a knee injury fast enough. That subtracted the Games’ biggest U.S. name from the equation.

Disappointments continued in more systemic and troubling ways.

Despite a gold in ice dancing and that bronze in team competition, U.S. figure skaters struggled with a talent gap, failing to win an individual medal for the first time since 1936. Speedskaters fared even worse, their total medals dropping from 10 in Vancouver to one in Sochi.

The national governing body for short- and long-track had fallen into turmoil after 2010. There were questions about skaters training at altitude for a sea-level competition and concerns that their new, sleek racing suits actually slowed them down.

“I’m not in shock,” Davis said after failing to defend his title in the 1,000 meters. “I am very in tune with reality.”

The reality is that U.S. officials will now take a long, hard look at the sport.

“I’m not sitting here today thinking that it’s going to be a simple solution,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “I’m not thinking it’s one thing.”

Other shortcomings were probably one-offs, the kind of missteps that can occur at the world’s most pressure-packed athletic competition.

Skier Kikkan Randall, favored to become the first American woman to medal in cross-country, inexplicably ran out of gas in the sprint quarterfinals. White, looking for his third consecutive halfpipe gold, ended up fourth.

U.S. officials took the gaffes in stride.

“There (are) always, at the Olympics, times when you’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish so-and-so had done better,’” Ashley said. “Just as many times, there is a whole new generation of athletes who surprise you.”

The Americans certainly have a head start in many of the new events – North American ski resorts added terrain parks with halfpipes, jumps and rails years ago. That advantage should persist while the rest of the world scrambles to catch up.

If nothing else, the past two weeks in Sochi showed that youth has its advantages.

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