In Sochi, the most memorable moments were not always golden.
Much has already been written about the Olympic champions in figure skating at these Games. Their achievements deservedly applauded, their celebrations ongoing, and their names will go down in history.
While I too applaud their efforts and accomplishments, there were numerous performances other than the winning ones that also provided for me some noteworthy and unforgettable moments.
Collectively, the Pairs Short Program, the Free Dance and the Ladies Free Skate had some of the best skating I have ever seen. Quality, competitiveness, variety and depth had us first riveted and then lifted us to our feet. We were left in awe of the events' remarkable performances and the audience certainly got more than their money's worth.
Speaking of audience, the Russian audiences were always vociferous in their appreciation of their own and were often an intimidating presence for others in Sochi. In my mind, they were a game-changer more so in these Olympics than in any of the other Games that I have attended. It felt a little more like a hockey crowd and while they didn't cheer when one of their skater's competitors made a mistake, the excited chatter when an error occurred was noticeable and undeniable. It created a strange buzz throughout the skating events.
The Russian skaters, for the most part, thrived on it and capitalized. Such was the case for the second-ranked Russian team of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov who, for me, stole the show in the Pairs. This was the team that in the last season - despite being injured and missing two months of training - has totally reinvented themselves. In one season, they have added new lifts, perfected the triple-twist and revamped their skating style and technique dramatically. It was the improvement of their overall quality of skating that impressed me the most and gave them a new found power and command. The fact that the Olympics were at home and that they were training alongside the World Champions provided the perfect fuel for the improvements they made. One saw clearly that the Russians are back in form to dominate in the Pairs event once again if the rest of the field doesn't take notice and respond quickly.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the Ice Dance delivered the moment they had hoped for at centre ice in Sochi. Their Free Dance was undoubtedly their best of the season and was a skate that will be remembered for years to come as an "all-time great performance." What they have done for the sport of ice dance with their beautiful lines, connection to each other, versatile portrayals, and athleticism is they have clearly defined the sport's identity. They bring the sense of dance to the forefront and stay true to it usually at a price, because the artistic risks they take add technical difficulty, which I believe has often gone unrewarded. The Free Dance event was spectacular in Sochi with all teams delivering dramatically and once again the wonderful careers of Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Tessa and Scott were revered and celebrated. Did the judges get it right? The debate will rage on and in the end there were no losers, only winners in what was a captivating dance event.
The ladies were as hot in the Free Skate as the men were not. Coming in, the men's free skate had the potential to be the best men's event ever. Patrick Chan, with his world renowned edges and choreographic complexity combined with his mastery of the quad, set the bar for what was expected to win gold at the these Games. He had been the driving force in men's skating since Vancouver and it was the teenager from Japan, Yuzuru Hanyu, who had been able to move in and keep pace this season. They had been so impressive all year that it felt to me that they were exhausted from the expectation and belief that it would take "perfect" to win in Sochi.
The men tried valiantly but left points on the table and in the end, it was Japan who had its first ever gold medal in men's Olympic skating. In hindsight, the wacky competitive schedule that the men had to endure will likely be revamped. It was the first time in at least 30 years that they had to compete on back-to-back days at the Games. That fact in itself can be challenging but on top of it, when the men finished the short program just before midnight, they had the draw and the mandatory press conference for the top finishers which took them into the early hours. They were left with about a seven hour turnaround at the village before they had to return for the morning practice. The guys weren't complaining but their legs did late that night when they competed in the Free. After a stellar lead up season and awesome practices in Sochi, one could only "feel" for the guys that they didn't have "that moment" in the Free Skate at the Games.
In all of the wonderful moments that made up the Ladies event, it was the performances of Japan's Mao Asada and Carolina Kostner of Italy that touched and inspired me most. Both were personal victories for these skaters, who after the Vancouver Games came at the challenge of Sochi in very different ways but with the same intense personal conviction.
Mao, second in Vancouver with her trademark triple axel, decided that her favorite jump - while worth more than any other - was not enough to make up for some of her other jumping deficiencies. So she committed herself to taking apart her technique and relearning and rebuilding her jumps from the ground up. It was a long, almost three-year process. I watched and admired her work ethic and her respect for her craft throughout the rebuild process in her determination to have no weaknesses. To watch her triumph in the Free Skate was a delight! It's so good for the sport and I'm so happy for her.
In 16th after the short, Mao was too far back to contend but for me her performance was the evening's big winner. Mao won our respect and hearts and so too did Kostner with her charming Bolero. Carolina, in her previous two Olympics, literally fell apart. In the Vancouver Games, her Free Skate was so desperate that she sobbed as she finished.
Of that skate she said, "I felt ashamed and nobody should have to feel that way at an Olympics."
So, this was about righting that wrong. Her goal this time was not about placements, even though she was a contender. It was, she said, about leaving the ice with a smile on her face. Her performance touched everyone, and especially those of us who have witnessed her turbulent past and watched her new found love for the sport. One couldn't help but admire her excellence and feel her sense of joy and gratitude. She left the Games this time with a smile and a medal, and for me it just doesn't get better than that!