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SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 09: United States skier Bode Miller crosses the finish line and reacts to not making the top three during the alpine skiing men's downhill final. Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort on Sunday, February 9, 2014. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Olympics: At Games’ mid-point, U.S. team playing to mixed reviews

Analysis » Americans stumbling in traditional sports, but shining in newer events

First Published Feb 15 2014 12:51 pm • Last Updated Feb 15 2014 10:38 pm

Sochi, Russia • The kids are killing it at the Sochi Olympics. Everybody else?

Not so much.

At a glance

Utah Gold

Only seven athletes born in Utah have won gold medals at the Olympics:

Athlete Sport Year

Alma Richards Track and field 1912

Lee Stratford Barnes Track and field 1924

Dorothy Poynton-Hill Diving 1932, 1936

Cael Sanderson Wrestling 2004

Ted Ligety Alpine Skiing 2006

Steven Holcomb Bobsled 2010

Joss Christensen Alpine Skiing 2014

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Halfway through the 16-day program here, the U.S. Olympic Team is having a strangely bipolar experience — youthful medal sweeps and podium glory throughout the freeskiing and snowboarding events, but spectacular disappointments just about everywhere else. Even the weather has been weird for a Winter Olympics, with bright sunshine and temperatures in the 50s and 60s almost every day.

"This is the Olympics of the underdogs," bobsledder Lolo Jones said. "You think about everybody who was supposed to medal who didn’t medal and then you think about just so many people who have kind of come up and got a first medal. … I’ve never seen anything like it."

Park City’s Joss Christensen, 22, and Sage Kotsenburg, 20, illustrate the point perfectly.

The longtime friends have surprisingly led the medal haul for the Americans, taking gold in the new ski and snowboard slopestyle events, respectively, despite entering the competition far under the radar. Same for Salt Lake City’s Kaitlyn Farrington, 24, who won gold in the snowboard halfpipe after hoping merely to reach the final.

In all, Utah residents have accounted for five of the 14 American medals, including four in freeskiing and snowboarding events.

Christensen led just the third American sweep of the podium in winter Olympic history, and Eagle Mountain’s Noelle Pikus-Pace finally won a medal after a long and star-crossed career, taking silver in the skeleton.

"Totally worth it," she said. "Totally worth it."

But most of the biggest names have faltered.

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Triple world champion Ted Ligety, of Park City, and five-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller have yet to medal on the slopes for the U.S. Ski Team that’s based in Park City, and snowboarding icon Shaun White failed to reach the podium while attempting to win a third straight gold in the halfpipe.

World champion ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, of Park City, finished way back in her sport’s historic first Olympic appearance — she was just six months out of reconstructive knee surgery — and speedskater Shani Davis has been blanked in all three of his individual races, including the two in which he holds the world record and a combined four Olympic medals.

"I have all the bells and whistles," he said, ruefully, "but I just didn’t get any from Sochi."

The speedskaters have become the most mystifying storyline of the Olympics.

Not a single one has medaled yet in long- or short-track, or even finished higher than short-tracker Emily Scott’s fifth place after harboring dreams of rivaling their impressive medal hauls of the past three Olympics.

Not only was Davis stunningly defeated in the 1,000 and 1,500, but top-ranked Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, who live in Utah and train at the U.S. Speedskating headquarters in Kearns, also inexplicably fell far short in their best race, the 1,000 meters.

Suspicion has fallen on the long-track team’s heralded new "Mach 39" speedsuits, designed by Under Armour in partnership with aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The suits were tested extensively, but never used in competition before Sochi, though the Americans have been losing by such large margins that it seems unlikely the suits could be the only culprit.

"The human factor is by far the largest piece out there," said coach Kip Carpenter, a former skater and Olympic medalist. "There’s not an athlete out there who is slowing down a second per lap because of the suit they’re in. What is it, a parachute on their back?"

Now, U.S. Speedskating is in real danger of missing the medal stand entirely, something that has not happened since the 1984 Sarajevo Games in the former Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has dominated, winning 13 of the 21 speedskating medals available so far.

Maybe the Americans "were just outclassed here," said Michel Mulder, the skater who led a Dutch sweep of the 500 meters.

The Americans do have some other top medal hopes coming up this week, including Park City’s Steven Holcomb in the bobsled and Ligety and Miller in three more ski races, along with teen slalom sensation Mikaela Shiffrin.

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