SOCHI, Russia –– Shaun White, master stunt pilot of snowboarding, landed so violently on the lip of the halfpipe that his board bent at a right angle, then became a sled as he skidded down the wall. He never recovered from the mistake.
White’s teammate Danny Davis was two-thirds of the way through a cleverly choreographed run when he fell. Greg Bretz crashed to last place.
“It’s a bummer,” White said, and his summation captures the performance of some of the U.S. team’s biggest stars so far at the Sochi Olympics, as the Games hit the halfway mark on Saturday.
With nine days of competition remaining, the U.S. was in its accustomed place at the top of the medal standings, tied with Norway with 13 total and four gold, one medal ahead of the Netherlands. But in events the Americans were expected to win, they were a snowball’s throw from the podium.
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White was aiming for his third straight gold in halfpipe, but he failed to launch any revolutionary tricks. He finished fourth, and Americans were excluded from the halfpipe medal stand for the first time.
Bode Miller led two practice runs in the downhill by large margins. His opponents predicted an epic race for Miller. Then, after braking with uncharacteristic tentativeness in the middle of the course, Miller settled for eighth.
Two-time defending Olympic champ and world record holder Shani Davis placed eighth in long track speedskating’s 1,000 meters, the event he called “my baby,” and teammates Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe placed seventh and eighth.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you what’s going on, what went wrong,” Davis said with the same stare off into the distance exhibited by White and Miller. “There’s no excuse, man.”
Aerials ace Emily Cook wound up eighth on Friday. Teammate Ashley Caldwell, who qualified in first place with the highest score of the day, was 10th – another example of an American unable to hold momentum in the final. Julia Mancuso, an Olympics gamer, finished eighth in the downhill after winning a bronze medal with her dominating downhill run in the combined event two days earlier.
Eight seems to be the U.S. team’s unlucky number four years after it finished No. 1 in Vancouver at the 2010 Games with 37 medals. The U.S. brought an all-time high of 230 athletes to Russia. They are behind the medal pace of 2010, when they had collected six golds and 18 total after seven days to command first in the tally. But with 12 new events being contested here, and plenty of skating, bobsledding, hockey, alpine and freestyle skiing action to come, no one is in a panic.
The U.S. team suffered a deflating blow weeks before the Olympics began when its most telegenic star, alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, withdrew because of a knee injury.
Sarah Hendrickson was to be co-favorite in the debut of women’s ski jumping if she could get her surgically repaired knee to heal in record time. She could not, and placed 21st.
Four years after Evan Lysacek won gold in men’s figure skating, Americans Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott placed ninth and 12th, respectively, with lots of bobbles in long programs Friday that did not measure up to those of the elite skaters. It was the worst showing for U.S. men since 1936.
The women’s ice hockey team lost 3-2 to Canada in a third-period collapse after beating its archrival four times in a row leading into the Olympics.
“I felt a little indifferent about the way we played,” U.S. coach Katey Stone said, not using a description players wanted to hear when they took the biggest stage for their sport.
A tearful Hannah Kearney did not hide her disgust about a “downward trajectory in my career” after she took bronze in moguls, the freestyle event she won four years ago.
Alaska’s Kikkan Randall, projected to make history as the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal in cross country skiing, could not even advance out of her quarterfinal in the free sprint.
The Nordic combined skiers, who finally got onto Americans’ radar screen with their breakthrough performances in 2010, were mired far down the normal hill finish list in 24th, 26th, 33rd and DNS.
Explanations have varied from flawed high-tech speedskating suits to flat light to soft snow to slow ice to simple underachievement.
“It’s not like we'll leave here thinking that we don’t belong here,” U.S. women’s curling team skip captain Erika Brown said after the 1-5 squad was all but eliminated. “We just came here and unfortunately did not perform like we know we can.”
Miller came to Sochi as the defending champion in the super combined and teammate Ted Ligety had won the gold in the 2006 combined. But after U.S. men logged sixth, 11th, 12th and DNF Friday in the super-combined, an event they had struck gold in the past two Winter Games, coach Sasha Rearick said, “We skied defensively.”
Lamented Shani Davis, who tries again in the 1,500 on Saturday: “We just weren’t fast enough. Other people were. We weren’t.”
Danny Davis, the snowboarder, was a little less crestfallen.
“We let America down,” he said with a wry smile. “Sorry, America.”
Despite the upsets, the U.S. team has had its share of athletes shining as brightly as the sun in Sochi.
Rosa Khutor Extreme Park has been the gold mine for Americans, where they swept the men’s slopestyle skiing event, led by Joss Christensen; Jamie Anderson won women’s slopestyle skiing; Sage Kotsenburg won slopestyle snowboarding, and Kaitlyn Farrington won women’s halfpipe snowboarding. Eleven events – six in snowboarding and five in freestyle skiing – are still to be held at the mountain venue. Americans are poised to capitalize on flashy new events some derisively call “trash sports” and others see as the gateway to young fans that International Olympic Committee demographers want to win over.
Noelle Pikus-Pace took hard-won silver in skeleton Friday after missing a medal by a tenth of a second in 2010 and missing the 2006 games after a runaway bobsled broke her leg.
“Many tears were shed,” Pikus-Pace said. “If I hadn’t gone through every single one of those things, I would not be here, and this is right where I want to be.”
The U.S. held off Japan to snatch bronze in team figure skating.
Erin Hamlin delighted her tiny hometown of Remsen, N.Y., and sliding fans with her bronze medal, the first in women’s luge for the U.S.
As for Week Two, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the U.S. team’s closest thing to a sure thing. The defending world champs are favored to win the first U.S. gold in figure skating’s most subjective event, where mistakes rarely occur. But their training partners and rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, who won gold in Vancouver, will keep the pressure on the Americans.
Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin are hot picks in their slalom events.
Bobsledding drivers Steven Holcomb and Elana Meyers are contenders for gold, as are the hockey teams that each won silver in 2010. Speedskaters in long and short track, shut out so far, have 11 chances to make up for lost time.
“Whenever we start predicting medals,” said U.S. Olympic Committee chief Scott Blackmun, “we get way off track.”