Pyeongchang, South Korea • Fair or not, the medal table tells a story.
Four years worth of work from hundreds of the nation’s best athletes is whittled down into two-and-a-half weeks, then later cemented as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down kind of Olympics. These 2018 Olympic Winter Games are somewhere in the middle and will be remembered as such. That’s being somewhat generous, too.
Team USA stormed into these Games with its largest athlete delegation in the history of the Winter Olympiad with 244 Americans vying for medals. They had the names, the profiles, the breakout stars — on paper. But only a few established names delivered, several high-profile athletes underachieved and those marketed breakout stars never busted out.
With less than 24 hours remaining in these Olympics, the U.S. sits relatively comfortably in fourth place in the medal count with 23, five ahead of the fifth-place Netherlands, but an astounding 15 medals behind the runaway champions of the Games, Norway, which had 38.
The Associated Press published an exclusive report two days ago revealing the USOC’s own expectations for Pyeongchang, and it shows just how far short Team USA has fallen of its lofty hopes.
The pre-Winter Games target goal was 37 medals, one below Norway’s current haul.
Regardless of outcome, the U.S. will have its lowest medal output since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where it had 13. The U.S. had 25 at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. The Americans bounced back four years later to have their best Winter Games ever with a record 37 medals in Vancouver.
This year’s team needed a jolt of energy, a shot in the arm, because Team USA’s first two weeks were woeful. Luckily, the last week was resuscitated by a series of inspiring performances, mostly by American female Olympians.
Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins made history Wednesday by winning the first women’s cross-country medal in U.S. history, a gold in the women’s team sprint free final. U.S. boblsedders Elana Meyers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs won silver. Lindsey Vonn won bronze in her final Olympic downhill race. U.S. long-track speedskating snapped a 16-year medal drought as Salt Lake’s Brittany Bowe and Mia Manganello plus Heather Bergsma won the first U.S. women’s speedskating medal since 2002 in the team pursuit.
U.S. women’s hockey exorcised the demons of the last 20 years the next day, beating rival Canada 3-2 in an emotional penalty shootout to win gold.
Violent wind gusts played a role in several alpine events here, forcing postponements early on. The weather essentially ruined Mikaela Shiffrin’s quest for as many as five medals in five alpine disciplines.
Different races wer eventually were sandwiched into consecutive days, not allowing the American ski racing star enough time to properly recover before her next competition. She leaves South Korea with a gold in the women’s giant slalom and a silver in the women’s alpine combined.
These Games at times felt like a generational shift.
Vonn is now all but done, in terms of the Olympics. Park City’s Ted Ligety, a two-time gold medalist, struggled in every event. On the hill, the U.S. has Shiffrin’s brilliance heading into the next Olympic cycle and not many legitimate medal threats behind her on either side.
Salt Lake’s Nathan Chen’s nightmare start couldn’t be revived by a masterpiece of a men’s free skate that saw him land a second six quadruple jumps en route to fifth place. American figure skaters managed a bronze medal in the team event and another in the ice dance pairs. Biathlon’s drought continues. Same with ski jumping. Skeleton didn’t medal.
With a few seconds shaved off here or there, a few points tacked on, the American tale could have been a lot different. Shiffrin finished fourth in slalom, Chen finished fifth, Bowe had a fourth place and two fifth-place finishes in the women’s long-track individual events, snowboardcross legend Lindsay Jacobellis came in fourth, as did men’s long-track skater and Salt Lake resident Joey Mantia in the men’s 1,000 meters.
There were a couple of stunners. Chris Mazdzer, who lives part-time in Utah, ended a 54-year medal drought in men’s luge singles by winning silver. John-Henry Krueger won silver in the men’s 1,000-meter short-track speedskating event.
And, of course, the topper of all toppers came Saturday night, when the Americans shocked the world to take the men’s curling gold after back-to-back victories over Canada, then Sweden in the finals.
The freestyle events the U.S. has dominated so thoroughly in recent years were no cakewalk. Seven U.S. medals in 2014 came in the freestyle skiing disciplines. They ended up with four here, including Westminster’s Alex Ferreira (silver, men’s ski slopestyle) and Brita Sigourney (bronze, women’s ski halfpipe).
Team USA had five repeat medalists from Sochi: Gold from Jamie Anderson in women’s snowboard slopestyle, silver from Nick Goepper in men’s ski slopestyle, gold from David Wise in men’s ski halfpipe, Meyers Taylor’s silver in the bobsled and Shiffrin’s gold.
The medal table tells a story. For a country like Norway, with a population roughly the size of Minnesota, it will be a tale of glory. The Norwegians have towered over the rest of the world here and have done so in variety of different disciplines — alpine, biathlon, cross-country skiing, slopestyle, ski jumping and speedskating.
Team USA has snowboarding, and always will. Seven of the 23 medals came on the board. Something to hang the collective beanie on, at least for the next four years.