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Gold? Bronze? Olympic “success” depends on the athlete (among other things)

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Steven Holcomb’s bronze-medal celebration Monday night brought to mind a vivid memory — his gold-medal celebration from four years ago.

“About the same,” Holcomb said of a boisterous fist-pumping, man-hugging reaction. “We didn’t even make it to the finish, and we were getting hounded by our teammates.”

Gold in one event one year. Bronze in another event four years later. The medals were different, but the celebrations were about the same.

Both were incredible achievements by Holcomb, who has now won Olympic and world medals in both the two- and four-man competitions. He is a trailblazer.

VIDEO: Watch Team USA’s bronze-medal run

He’s also a reminder that the definition of success at an Olympics is layered and largely brought on by subjective perception and expectation. The medal standings are growing with importance as the Games go through the final week.

What will make for a “successful” Olympics for the U.S.?

  • Winning more medals than Vancouver, when Americans took 37 of them, the most ever for one nation at a Winter Games?
  • Winning the overall medal count for the first time at a non-North American Winter Games?

It’s a nuanced question. First, let’s look at Holcomb.

  • He held onto bronze by .03 of a second after the fourth and final run in teeth-chattering conditions at the Sanki Sliding Center.
  • Holcomb, with brakeman Steve Langton, ended a 62-year U.S. Bobsled drought for the second straight Olympics.
  • In 2010, he became the first American to win four-man gold since 1948.
  • In 2014, he became the first American to win a two-man medal of any color since 1952.
  • Not only is Holcomb the reigning Olympic four-man champion, he also entered these Games as the season-long World Cup champion in the two-man.

“I don’t have any Olympic medals in two-man, so to finally come away with a bronze, I’ll take gold, silver, bronze,” he said. “We were just here to win a medal. I know we were the gold-medal favorites coming in.”

Pause right there. Gold-medal favorites. The Associated Press and Infostrada tapped Holcomb for two-man gold. Sports Illustrated picked him for silver.

WATCH: Holcomb, Langton make U.S. history in bobsled

Olympic medal predictions don’t have high success rates, but Holcomb knew the perception was there that he had a shot at gold.

Holcomb clarified, saying he didn’t consider himself the gold-medal favorite because talented Russian Aleksandr Zubkov had a home-track advantage, enough of an edge to make up for the fact he ranked well behind Holcomb in the World Cup standings.

In bobsled, track experience is critical. Holcomb dominates in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, where he’s taken more runs than a guy like Zubkov. His success rate outside North America is not as great.

So for Holcomb to win a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics, beating another Russian sled by .03 for that last medal, that’s worthy of celebration.

The 62-year drought? As is equated so often in sports, Holcomb wasn’t around for most of that time. But it speaks to how tough it was for the U.S. to break through in a sport long dominated by European nations.

Perception and reaction has varied across sports and athletes in Sochi. The U.S. speed skaters haven’t performed to expectations. Snowboarders and skiers have surprised.

Shaun White was a gold-medal favorite and finished fourth. Disappointment.

Hannah Kearney was a gold-medal favorite and won bronze, an upset she handled with grace (as did White). Bode Miller looked strong in training and then finished eighth in the downhill. He rebounded and tied for an emotional bronze in the super-G.

If the U.S. women’s hockey team wins silver, you can bet players will shed tears, and they won’t be of joy. How will people react if Ted Ligety wins silver in the giant slalom? If Mikaela Shiffrin wins silver in the slalom? How will Ligety and Shiffrin react?

Then there’s Dutch speed skater Koen Verweij.

The Dutch speed skaters have been seen as the epitome of dominance in Sochi, winning 16 medals. Here’s what their star, Sven Kramer, said Monday about Verweij, who missed gold by .003 of a second in the 1500m.

“What annoys me is that people blame him for not being happy with the silver,” Kramer said. “It’s good that he was unhappy. It’s top sport, and top sport is about winning.”

All medal reactions are not equal.

The U.S. won two medals on Monday to bring its total to 18 for the Olympics. There’s almost no chance it tops the 37 from Vancouver, even with more events at these Olympics than four years ago.

At the same time, it is tied with Russia for the overall medal lead. It is one medal ahead of the Netherlands and three medals ahead of Canada and Norway. The U.S. also could win a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics, which it has never done. (OK, so that’s a novelty stat.)

But with six days left of competition, the U.S. is in the running to win the overall medal count for the first time at a Winter Olympics held outside North America.

What will be a success? It’s hard to say, but Holcomb seemed pretty thrilled to contribute to the U.S. tally Monday night.

“Obviously, everybody here wants to win,” he said. “We’re happy to be in that hunt.”

Laurie Hernandez explains wink, nervous Olympic moments in book excerpt

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09:  Lauren Hernandez of the United States prepares ro compete on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two of Laurie Hernandez‘s most memorable moments in Rio were mouthing “I got this” before her team final balance beam routine and winking at judges before her floor exercise.

The former became the title of her book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” due out Tuesday. The latter she also details in the book’s pages.

Hernandez, the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s, is the third member of the Final Five to pen a book.

Hernandez took team gold and balance beam silver in Rio, becoming the youngest individual U.S. Olympic gymnastics medalist since 1992 (Shannon Miller).

She then became the youngest winner of “Dancing with the Stars,” which she also reviews in the book.

Here’s an excerpt from “I Got This,” where Hernandez looks at her Rio Olympic experience:

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense. So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment. For me that moment happened during my floor routine in the team finals, just before we won. I spontaneously winked at one of the judges and everyone there, and at home, seemed to love that. But honestly I don’t know what came over me. Right before I went on, I was so nervous I looked at the team and said, “Guys, I’m so scared. It’s the last event, what if I mess up?” Any time you are competing as a team you have those worries—I know I had certainly felt the same way at international meets. Thankfully, the girls assured me that wasn’t going to happen. They said, “No, no, no, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. We’re a few points ahead, so just go out there and enjoy yourself.”

I made my way toward the warm-up area. I was feeling pretty good by then, so I stood to the side and took a deep breath. I wanted to soak in everything around me, because it was definitely a major moment. I scanned the cheering crowd and all I saw was a sea of green. Brazil’s colors are yellow, blue, and green, and the entire arena was decked out in green. The mats were green, the logos were green, everything around me was green, and for a split second, I found it kind of intimidating because in the United States, all our equipment is blue. Even a seemingly small difference like that can be jarring.

Then all of a sudden I heard this beep. It was coming from the little TV screen in the warm-up area that lists your name, your country, and the event you’re about to compete in. My screen read Lauren Hernandez, USA, Floor Exercise. After I heard the beep, the screen switched to GO, which meant I had to go salute the judges and begin.

When I stood up on the floor, I could see one of the out-of-bounds judges in my line of vision. That is the judge who checks to make sure your foot never crosses over the white line. Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink. After I did that, I went on to do an amazing routine. When it was done, I was so proud of myself! Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone and Aly compete in their all-around finals and she said, “Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, “Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.” That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was “Oh my goodness.”

When I think back on the Olympics, there were only two times I was anxious for myself or for one of my teammates. In my beam routine, I always find the triple series (or what is called a flight series) a little nerve-racking. That’s when I have to perform three moves in a row backward: I do a back handspring, followed by a layout step-out, followed by another layout step-out. I had a good feeling before I was going to compete that I would hit it, but it’s something I’m always slightly worried about in the back of my mind. The other thing that had me holding my breath was Aly’s first tumble, because she does so much in that pass. I don’t think she’s ever worried about it, because in her head she’s doing everything she needs to do to execute it beautifully. But as you watch, there’s a lot going on, so you fear something might go wrong. She basically does a round off, a backward one-and-a-half twist, and then she steps out of that to connect to another round-off, a back handspring, and then she does this spring called a double Arabian and basically goes up in the air to do a half turn and double front flip connected to a front layout, which is a front flip with a straight leg where her whole body is open. It’s incredible! It’s so insane. It wows me every single time.”

MORE: Hernandez discusses her 2017 plans

Laurie Hernandez

How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday

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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage begins Thursday, live on NBCSN and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The pairs and women’s short programs are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Pairs short program
5:30-7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

Women’s short program
9:30 p.m.-midnight ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

In pairs, defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea take on a field including two-time Skate America silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier as well as 2014 Olympians Marissa Castelli and Nathan Bartholomay, each skating with different partners since Sochi.

The women are headlined by three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, seeking to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years at age 25.

She could be challenged by defending champion Gracie Gold, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Skate America silver medalist Mariah Bell.

The pairs and women’s free skates will be Saturday, on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: Gracie Gold forgives herself, eight months after worlds failure