After a week of unexpected American medalists and surprising shutouts, the U.S. Olympic team heads into the second weekend of the Sochi Games with little for certain.
It’s too early to say whether the U.S. will finish No. 1 in overall medals, but with the Olympics not quite at the halfway mark, one streak is alive and in reach. The Americans have won at least one medal every day, thanks to skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace, who held on for silver Friday. Her medal helped ease the disappointment of finishing in fourth, just off the podium, four years ago.
On the first full day of competition, American Sage Kotsenburg started the run of surprising winners when he became the first gold medalist of these Games, beating favorite Mark McMorris of Canada in the new sport of snowboard slopestyle. Five days later, slopestyle was still all the rage as freeskier Joss Christensen put together dominant runs on the same course to win gold. And then there’s Erin Hamlin, who became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze) in her sport.
The nine medals won by U.S. freeskiers and snowboarders, including a sweep in men’s slopestyle skiing, helped pick up the slack of veterans who fell apart in the opening week. Shani Davis and Bode Miller are among the U.S. stars who have another shot at medals starting Saturday.
But the U.S. team is below the pace set at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when the Americans finished first with 37 medals. Heading into Day 9, the USA was tied for first with Norway with 13 medals, including four golds. In Vancouver, the U.S. had 20 medals, including six golds, at this point of the Games, Olympic historian Bill Mallon said.
This weekend, the Americans aren’t expected to gain a lot of ground. Traditional power Norway could surge, given the country’s dominance in cross country skiing (seven medals so far in Sochi). Also the country’s top alpine skier, Aksel Lund Svindal, is a gold medal favorite in Sunday’s men’s super G.
As for the Americans, Davis is a medal contender in speedskating in Saturday’s 1,500 meters. But after finishing eighth in the 1,000 meters, the race he won at the past two Winter Games, Davis is vulnerable.
The most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic alpine history, Julia Mancuso, races in Saturday’s super-G, aiming to tie Miller’s U.S. record for most medals (five). After her surprise bronze in the super combined, and the whirlwind of attention that followed, she finished eighth in the downhill Wednesday.
“The super-G is a good chance to reset,” Mancuso said. “Trust my instincts again.”
The combined performance of the short and long track U.S. speedskaters has been disappointing. Short track skater and 2010 bronze medalist J.R. Celski may be the only American with a shot at a medal in Saturday’s 1,000-meter race. Celski just missed the podium in the 1,500, finishing fourth.
Kikkan Randall’s attempt at becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic cross-country skiing medal fell well short when she was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the individual freestyle sprint. The USA’s other top cross country skier, Jessie Diggins, also went out in the quarters.
Randall is expected to compete in Saturday’s 4×5-kilometer relay and next week’s team sprint, but probably missed her best chance at a medal.
“Just to come in the Games as a gold medal contender was incredible. I wish I would have been able to fight for that in a few more rounds,” Randall said after Tuesday’s freestyle sprint.
Lindsey Jacobellis spent nearly two years away from snowboardcross after knee surgery and this season she’s landed on the World Cup podium twice — including winning a December event in Lake Louise, Alberta. She could return to the podium Sunday.
The other must-see events of the weekend include Saturday’s men’s hockey game between the USA and Russia. Before the Olympics began, Sochi organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko was asked to name his one can’t-miss event.
“The hockey, obviously. Russia vs. USA in the final,” he said with a laugh. “This is the national game, it’s in our blood. I know in the USA this sport is probably number three after football and basketball but in Russia it’s sport number one. A lot of Russian hockey players are in the NHL, that would be the most desirable scenario for us. With Russia to play the USA in final. With a Russian win.”
A USA-Russia final isn’t expected, so Chernyshenko might have to settle for this game between the two rivals.
The expected coronation of U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White begins Sunday when the world champions perform their short dance.