Joe Posnanski

Sochi souvenirs that matter the most

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Photo credit: Getty

SOCHI, Russia – This one’s personal. Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born five months before the 2002 Olympics. That was my first Winter Games. I walked around Salt Lake City with a little box that had a picture of Elizabeth and a button which, when pressed, would play a recording of her laughter. I had to press that button every time I went through security to convince guards it wasn’t a bomb.

Our youngest daughter, Katie, turned one the day after I left for the 2006 Torino Olympics. She turned nine as the Opening Ceremony went off in Sochi. We celebrated over Facetime; I called to wake her up and I watched as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

For three weeks, I’ve wandered bone-tired around Sochi and Adler and Krasnaya Polyana while watching sports, and I’ve often thought about one thing: What can I bring my daughters? Sure, I’ve got some nesting dolls and silly Olympic souvenirs that cost a fortune and Russian tchotchkes of various colors and shapes. But the question again: What can I bring back that won’t just clutter their rooms?

What can I bring back to them that actually matters?

Lesson No. 1: Try new things.

Nobody expected Sage Kotsenburg to be much of a factor at these Olympics. He’s a snowboarder. His event is slopestyle, where the snowboarder has to gracefully manage several obstacles and then pull off three fantastic jumps that will dazzle the judges. Leading into the Olympics, the judges were not dazzled by Kotsenburg. He had what followers called a “down season.” He didn’t seem too bothered. He wasn’t snowboarding for judges. He was snowboarding for the feeling he called “super stoked.”

His Olympic goal? “To make snowboarding look cool and get kids stoked on it.”

So when he went on his second run, he got it into his head to try this trick –he called it a 1620 with a Japan Grab – that he had never tried before. Never. Not even in practice. He just felt like he would land it, you know?

And he made it. He landed this awesome new trick. And he won the gold. But it wasn’t the medal that made it cool. It was that he tried something because … he wanted to try something. All your life, there will be things you don’t think you can do. But you won’t know, not really, not unless you go for your 1620 with a Japan Grab when the feeling is right.

Lesson No. 2: Be joyful.

The happiest person I saw at these Games – and maybe the happiest person I have seen in my entire life – was a woman named Noelle Pikus-Pace who won the silver medal in an event called skeleton. In skeleton, the athlete gets on a sled FACING FORWARD and slides and skids around an absurdly fast and treacherous track of ice. I can only imagine it is some strange mix of exhilaration and insanity and pure terror. Pikus-Pace had missed one Olympics because of a bizarre injury involving a bobsled and had missed a medal by a blink of an eye at another Olympics. Then she walked away so she could, in her own words, join the PTA and bake cookies and be supermom.

But then, she and her husband, Jansen, decided, hey, let’s try one more time. So they did. Jansen built the sled. Noelle did the sliding. They made it to Sochi.  Before her final run, she wrote herself a little note: “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” And she won the silver medal.

And she was so happy — wildly, crazily, absurdly, wonderfully happy. Silver? Gold? No medal at all? Who cares? She could not stop smiling or laughing. She could not stop hugging everyone. It wasn’t the medal that made her happy. It was the feeling. She did it! They did it! She knew they could do it! Her six year old daughter Lace and two year old son Traycen were clomping around just like you did at their age, and they were ringing little bells someone had given them, and Jansen was bonkers with triumph, and Noelle was posing with the official letter from the Olympic committee that said “Dear Medalist” — her proof that she had actually won a medal. If joy was power, they could have lit up Times Square.

“I hope there’s a girl out there, let’s say a 15-year-old girl, who watched and thought ‘that skeleton looks cool! I want to do that!’” And Pikus-Pace, still 15 in her mind, just kept on smiling like it was best day ever, which, of course, it was. Until tomorrow.

Lesson No. 3: Take your time.

One of life’s challenges is that you always want to rush. You will want to move to the next thing. This happens to everybody. Just remind yourself to stop, focus and concentrate on doing your best. Force yourself to take your time. That can be the small line between getting an answer right or wrong, between beauty and the ordinary, between something you did and something for which you are proud.

Take T.J. Oshie, the U.S. hockey player. He gained worldwide fame for his shootout prowess – that’s when a hockey player goes one-on-one with the goalie. He made the game-winning shot against Russia (and two shots that tied the game). Most of the players rush the goalie, hoping that some combination of speed and intimidation and power will carry the day. Often it does. Oshie does it differently. He glides around the ice, lackadaisical almost. He takes his time, and he looks for a small opening … and looks … and looks. He seems willing to wait as long as necessary and it is his combination of patience and rhythm and vision that creates art. Don’t rush. Don’t get careless. Time is there to be used.

Lesson 4: Follow your dreams, no matter how silly they might seem.

Emily Scott wanted to skate at the Olympics. Gregory Carigiet wanted to luge at the Olympics. They had these dreams most of their lives. And there were countless times in their lives when that seemed impossible. Last year, when American Scott’s funding was cut, she applied for food stamps. Last year, when Switzerland’s Carigiet had run out of money, he sold his car. Then he sold his motorcycle. He said he would have sold his shirt too.

All the while, people shook their heads. The Olympics? It’s time to let go of such childish dreams. This will happen to you too. Elizabeth, you want to be a writer and a fashion designer. Katie, you want to be a soccer player and a teacher. Those dreams might change, but don’t let anyone else – Daddy included – change them or dampen them. These are your dreams. These are your lives.

When Emily made it here – and her father arrived shortly after – she was so happy to be competing. She didn’t win a medal. When Gregory made it here, when he slid down the track and realized this was the Olympics, he was overwhelmed. He didn’t win a medal either. As glorious as the dream had seemed, the reality was even better. It was worth it. That’s the point. It was worth it.

Lesson 5: Don’t let other people judge you.

There’s a lot of judging at the Olympics. A lot. Of the nine gold medals the United States won, seven were judged sports (depending on 4-man bobsled results). People who judge how well athletes snowboard and ski, how well they land on jumps, how gracefully they skate, how cool their tricks look in the air. The judges are stern and picky and often inscrutable. That means impossible to understand.

But, in the end, those judges don’t define you. In the women’s figure skating final, three skaters – Italy’s Carolina Kostner, South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova – all skated their hearts out. Each one of them performed beautifully, bravely even, and while people would argue about what medals they deserved, the important thing was the near-perfect skating. They lived up to their own ambitions, and that’s what matters.

In your life, I can promise, you will sometimes be praised for something you know you didn’t quite do as well as you could. And you will be criticized at times when you gave everything and believe you did well. It will be surprising sometimes, frustrating other times, but in the end you should try to live up to your own ambitions. That’s what lasts.

Related: Watch and compare Sotnikova, Kim, Costner and Gold

Lesson 6: Lose with grace.

Shani Davis is probably the greatest 1,000-meter speed skater who ever lived. He has won two gold medals in the 1,000, he has the world record and he has most of the fastest times ever recorded. He came to Sochi looking for his third gold.

He did not come close. He finished a shocking a distant eighth. He was confused and despondent. Later, at the 1,500-meter race – he’s awfully good at 1,500 meters too – he finished 11th. He just could not get his speed going.

He could have come up with excuses. That’s the first temptation of losing: excuses. The U.S. team did have people who complained that suits slowed them down. He could have blamed someone else. That’s the second temptation. You will see people do this all your life. Shani chose the third option. He simply took the blame.

“I’m a professional,” he said. “I’m one of the best speed skaters in the world. I just didn’t have it.”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste the death but once.” That’s Shakespeare – from Julius Caesar. The same can be true of losing. What you find with the excuse makers, those who insist on feeling cheated, those who blame others — they will keep losing the same race again and again and again.

You will lose sometimes. It hurts. It is bitter. But it is also over. Do what Shani did. Remember that you’re good. Accept that you lost. And then, go on.

Lesson 7: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.

As a father of two daughters, what I want more than anything is a world without barriers. In truth, I used to think some barriers mattered while others didn’t.

For instance, I never got too riled up about Augusta National not having any women members. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was stupid and sexist and worthy of non-stop scorn and ridicule. But, in the end, I didn’t really care. Augusta National membership is not of my world. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want my daughters to join that club even if Augusta National would have my daughters as members.

But over time, I started to think about it in a different way. There just shouldn’t be ANY barriers. Augusta National is probably most important golf club West of St. Andrews. Golf is a game for everyone. They should (and now do) have women members.

In the same way, it had exactly no impact on my life – or my daughters’ likely future lives — that women’s ski jumping wasn’t an Olympic event. But it was wrong. It was a barrier. And so a couple of American women – Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome – led an involved, often painful, and ultimately successful effort to get ski jumping into these Olympics. That was inspirational.

I was there for the first Olympic women’s ski jump. It was such a cool event. Lindsey Van was once the best in the world, but that time passed and she did not medal. Neither did Jessica Jerome. But they won.

Lesson 8: Be yourself.

Lindsey Jacobellis, the awesome snowboard cross star, came to another Olympics trying to win gold. In snowboard cross, riders race through this crazy course at the same time. There are crashes and wild turns and all sorts of nuttiness. She’s a legend in the sport. She’s won almost every big event. She never won at the Olympics.

She had the gold medal all but locked up eight years ago in Torino but on her last jump she wanted to have some fun so she tried this little trick where she grabbed the board in midair. When she hit the ground, she fell. She won the silver instead of gold.

People have tried to make this into a tragedy. She missed gold! All because she had to show off!

Well, yes, she did show off. It was silly. But it was only that, silly, and Jacobellis refused to let other people define how she was supposed to feel about it. She refused to let people turn her fun into a national tragedy or a life-altering disaster.

Instead, she kept snowboarding, kept having fun, kept winning, kept loving her life. When she crashed and lost in Vancouver, she did the same. When Jacobellis crashed and lost here in Sochi, she did the same. She adopted one of the stray puppies. She said it was kind of a bummer losing. But she will keep on snowboarding. Because she loves it, no matter what others may say, gold medal or no gold medal.

Lesson 9: Always try your best.

That’s our family motto. Always try your best. In the women’s figure skating final, there was a Japanese skater named Mao Asada. She was the silver medalist in Vancouver. She was the only woman to even attempt the difficult triple axel jump – I don’t know exactly what a triple axel jump is, I just know it’s very hard to do.

During Wednesday’s short program, Asada attempted her triple axel … and fell. It was crushing. She skated as if in a fog. She fell again soon after. She was supposed to do a jump with three rotations and did one instead. It was a skating disaster, and the judges’ score of 55.51 put her in 16th place.

It was so bad that, back in Japan, the head of the 2020 Tokyo organizing committee griped that Mao Asada is “always falling at the most critical time.” It was a cruel thing to say, and word was that during warm-ups Asada was discouraged and repeatedly falling and in no condition for her evening free skate.

So when she came out for Thursday’s free skate, there was no medal hope. There was no making up for her short program. It looked like it would be a sad thing.

Instead: It was one of the most inspiring things I saw in Sochi. Mao landed her triple axel right away. And it animated her. She landed her next jump sequence perfectly, and she started to skate more quickly, and she skated a virtuoso performance. The Russian crowd – so difficult to draw out – burst into cheers.

The whole skate wasn’t for anything but pride and love and another chance to skate on the world stage. And she skated the best performance of her life. When it ended, she broke into big, beautiful tears of joy and relief. And then she had the biggest smile.

In many ways this was my favorite moment of the Olympics. If I could bring back one thing from Sochi for our girls it is this lesson. Always try, even when it seems pointless. You never know when you might do something beautiful.

U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

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source: AP
Photo credit: AP

SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

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Photo credit: AP

*Though back home, the “Loser Keeps Bieber” campaign – featured on a Chicago billboard and trending on Twitter – certainly created some fire.

Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

Forget the scoring for a moment, focus on the skating

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SOCHI, Russia – Sure it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. Figure skating scoring is inscrutable and bizarre and it has a long history of corruption. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers of Thursday’s ladies free skate because it’s possible, even likely, that your eyes and the scores did not matched.

But if you look too hard at the scores, you might miss something else.  Thursday night, a 27-year-old Italian named Carolina Kostner took to the ice. Eight years ago, she was the darling of the Torino Games, the great figure skating hope for Italy. She fell on her first jump and never contended. The last time she was at the Olympics – four years ago in Vancouver – she fell three times. And she broke down. There’s a YouTube video of an interview with her mother, and I dare you to watch it not to cry. There’s not a word of English in the entire video. I still dare you to watch it and not cry.

After Vancouver, Kostner got hurt, and she lost hope. “I thought, ‘I have reached my limit,’” she would say. “This is my limit.” She became a student. She tried to forget. But she missed skating. The Olympics are in her blood. Her father was a member of an Olympic hockey team. Her cousin Isolde Kostner won two bronze medals in alpine skiing. Carolina did not want to believe Vancouver was her limit. Instead she told herself to stop trying to be perfect and start skating for herself, for the joy.

VIDEO: Watch Kostner’s routine

She took the ice in Sochi, and “Bolero” began to play, and she landed her first jump, a triple lutz. From there, the music swept her away. She landed every jump. She skated with this big, beautiful smile on her face. The crowd – with hardly an Italian in the place – was mesmerized by her. When she finished the best performance of her life, the joy on her face was indescribable. She had done it.

Thursday, a 17-year-old Russian named Adelina Sotnikova took the ice. She had once been the skating prodigy of Russia. She won the national championship when she was 12. Around the Vancouver Games, when people first began talking of an Olympics in Russia, the feeling was that it would be Sotnikova’s Games. She was the future.

And then … she wasn’t. The fizzling phenom is a common story in sports. Sotnikova so dominated the junior ranks – she was junior world champion in 2011 – but her skating didn’t transfer easily to the next level. She would say that she wanted to prove her maturity, prove that she could skate like a woman and not just like a little girl. Instead, her performances were uneven. Her athletic brilliance – she skates one of the most difficult routines in the world – was often overshadowed by dramatic failures. She almost never skated a clean free skate.

VIDEO: Watch Sotnikova’s routine

Meanwhile, a new Russian skating prodigy – there’s always a new prodigy – named Yulia Lipnitskaya came along. It was Lipnitskaya, not the older Sotnikova, who skated for Russia in the team competition early in these Olympics. There, she skated so beautifully that the world fell in love with Yulia. Sotnikova steamed. “I was really angry,” she would say of not getting chose to skate at least once for the team. And, “it made me skate mad.”

By the time she stepped on the ice Thursday, Lipnitskaya had already skated … and fallen. The Russian crowd had invested so much in Yulia (and had gasped with the same shock when she fell for the second straight day) you wondered if they had anything left to give. Sotnikova began her skate. Her first jump sequence was a triple lutz into a triple toe loop … I’m told it’s the hardest two-jump combination in women’s skating. She landed both jumps perfectly.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s routine

And then she, like Kostner, seemed to light up. The Russian crowd, of course, helped her. They cheered every landing as if it was a hockey goal. When Sotnikova had her one slight bobble – a double loop that sort of spun her around – the crowd did not seem to notice. They had found their hero, and Sotnikova skated an inspired performance. They cheered her through it. She finished strong. And when she had finished the best performance of her life, she beamed and held her arms up in the air. Bouquets and teddy bears came flying in from everywhere in the crowd, and the sound was the loudest I have heard in Russia. She had done it.

Thursday, the last skater of the evening was a 23-year-old woman from South Korea named Yuna Kim. She had won the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics with a performance so dazzling and flawless that many people believed even then she was the best figure skater who ever lived.

After Vancouver, she quit skating. Her heart was not in it. Before Vancouver, she would say, “I thought I would die for gold.” After winning under the most intense pressure, she no long felt that same motivation, that same hunger. There was probably no athlete on earth – maybe retired Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar—who had the weight of a country so squarely on his or her shoulders as Yuna Kim at Vancouver. They called her “Queen Yuna” and expected her to get gold.

VIDEO: Watch Yuna Kim’s routine

When she won that gold, she became one of the most famous people in the country. She walked away from skating and hosted her own reality ice skating show. She did countless commercials (it is estimated she makes more than $10 million a year in endorsements). She performed as a singer on television from time to time. She was the headliner at her own ice skating shows. She was also a key reason why South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Skater Michelle Kwan, who accompanied Yuna Kim at times in South Korea, says it’s simply like nothing she has ever seen – the love people there feel for Yuna Kim.

After a year and a half away did she come back … at which point she promptly hurt her foot. For every other skater at the Olympics, there was a “Best season-to-date score” listed by her name on the scoreboard. But not for Kim. She had not skated all season. Nobody knew what to expect, least of all Kim. She would say that before her short skate Wednesday, she had never been more nervous.

She took the ice Thursday to the song “Adios Nonino,” and she, like Sotnikova, faced a triple lutz and triple toe loop to start. And she landed both easily. The Russian crowd undoubtedly had cold feelings because they wanted their Sotnikova to win gold. But they could not help but get caught up in the beauty of Kim’s skating. Nobody in the world skates quite like her. She is so smooth and graceful that you are never quite sure how she builds up so much speed. She skated a brilliant and clean performance. And when it ended, the cheers were not as loud as for Sotnikova, but loud enough and filled with the deepest respect for an artist. She, too, had done it.

VIDEO: Hamilton, Bezic, Wilson on the scoring debate

Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. The three performances, all so brilliant, all achieved under the white hot line of a magnifying glass, won the skaters gold, silver and bronze … exactly as it should have been. But who deserved the gold? Who deserved the silver? Who deserved the bronze?

“My bronze feels like gold,” said the bronze medalist.

“I was just relieved I skated cleanly,” said the silver medalist.

“I didn’t believe my eyes,” said the gold medalist.

I prefer it like that, all of them as winners. But, of course, the Olymipcs are not like that. You know, I assume, the names behind those medals. You will know that Adelina Sotnikova did win the gold to Russia’s great joy. Yuna Kim won silver and many skating experts thought she deserved better. Carolina Kostner won bronze and there were those who thought she was better than one or the other or both.

There was a lot of heat in the moments after. There was crying. There were arguments. There was a lot of Twitter fury. Figure skating scoring will always be a story because people will always see figure skating with their hearts. That’s the messiness of the sport. Then, that’s also the point of it.