Three Sheets of Ice, Three Different Stories in Sochi

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So much possibility rests upon a fresh sheet of ice. It could be an empty hockey rink in the hours before a game begins, the nets not even brought out yet and the creases unmarked by goalie skates. Or the surface in the figure skating arena patiently awaiting the decoration of swirling spin lines and toepick divots. Watching workers prepare a curling sheet is fascinating, almost meditative: It involves slow laps back and forth with, variously, a lawn mower–size ice shaver, a water-filled backpack with a spray hose, and long neat racks of heavy curling stones. The pebbled result is lovely — a matte finish to most other ice’s glossy sheen.

On Thursday, I attended events at all three places, each of them to determine a women’s gold-medal winner. What transpired showed the full range of all that can happen atop a layer of frozen water. The ice can help you soar at speeds and in ways not otherwise possible. It can also slip you right up.

The first stop was the gold-medal game for women’s curling, between Canada and Sweden. Canada’s men’s hockey coach Mike Babcock was in the stands, sitting below a maple leaf flag next to dressed-up fans in cowboy hats. On the far end of the arena were a bunch of guys from the Swedish men’s hockey team — including Daniel Alfredsson, Loui Eriksson, and Erik Karlsson — and they participated in a few call-and-response Swedish cheers.

I won’t even pretend that I understood exactly what was going on at any given point, but I grasped the basics, marveled at the teamwork, and — most of all — enjoyed the fans. (They’re like golf or tennis supporters: total connoisseurs of the sport, though far more costumed.) Canada was up 4-3 going into the ninth, having survived a few tricky situations. Then Sweden’s Maria Prytz and her sweepers botched their final attempt of the end, knocking one of their own stones out of position and all but guaranteeing Canada the win. It was the first Olympic gold medal for Canada’s Jennifer Jones, whose team was perfect in Sochi.

Little did I know that this outcome, with its late changes in fortune and its victory for Canada, would foreshadow the remainder of the night.

On to figure skating — dear, sweet figure skating. (As I walked in I passed a mime accompanied by a girl in a Siberian tiger fluffy hat-and-dangling-mittens combo, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have learned they were part of someone’s coaching staff.) The ladies’ short program the night before had yielded some noteworthy standings: Only eight-tenths of a point separated the top skater of the night, 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim, from third-place Carolina Kostner. In between them was a young Russian, though not the one most people had expected.

Julia Lipnitskaia, the little jewel of a nation following her breathtaking, backbreaking pair of routines during last week’s team event, had fallen hard on a triple flip. Cue Adelina Sotnikova, a 17-year-old from Moscow who’d been lost in Lipnitskaia’s teensy shadow all this time.

Sotnikova was 12 when she won the Russian nationals in 2009; after that performance, she had been considered one of the country’s figure skating prodigies. But in the years since, her star had faded; last week, the Russian team decided not to even use her in the team event.

“It helped a lot that I did not participate in the team event,” she reflected. “I got really angry and decided I will get a medal in the individual event.”

In Thursday night’s free skate, the final group comprised those top three girls, Lipnitskaia, and Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner. Notably missing was defending world champion Mao Asada, who had been expected to contend for a medal but finished 16th in the short program thanks to a fall on her triple axel. (She’s one of very few women to ever try the move.) As a result, her long program was much earlier in the evening, but it just may have been the true best performance of the night. When it ended, her face twisted skyward into tears.

Lipnitskaia, in her red Schindler’s List coat, fell once more, and there was a gasp of collective horror. Next up was Kostner, the toothy 27-year-old Italian in an open-backed leotard whose routine to “Bolero” was athletic but also graceful, fierce yet soft. If she medaled, she’d be the first Italian woman to do so. Sotnikova was next, and the crowd shifted the entirety of its support to her. With the exception of one mildly stumbling landing, she rocked the house, at one point going so far as to raise her arms mid-glide and exhort the crowd to cheer louder, like an NBA player after hitting a 3. When her scores were revealed, she’d destroyed her personal best. Even Sotnikova looked completely shocked by the marks, which put her in first place.

It’s hard not to be moved by an engaged and loving mass of fans: A supportive soundtrack will always elevate a routine. The inverse of this is stony silence, which is what Gracie Gold, in her light blue Sleeping Beauty costume, mostly received. Personally, I think her arm movements are a little too stiff, but Gold’s engagement with her music — probably because it was the only sound filling the arena — was some of the most precise I’d seen. A fall essentially eliminated her medal chances, but it was a solid Olympic debut.

Wagner, in her saffron costume and bright red lips that reminded me of Michelle Williams at the Oscars, hit her routine cleanly, even if her style was more pitbull than poodle in comparison to someone like Mao Asada or Kostner.

Last to skate was Kim, known as “the Queen,” though judging by the lightness of her landings and her ethereal spins, she’s not the sort of monarch who rules with an iron foot. Her routine, to my eye, was stirring and mostly flawless, if not necessarily sold with the same panache as some of her competitors. When it ended without a hitch I sort of just assumed she’d won, to be honest, and so I ducked out of the building so I could make it to the end of women’s hockey. In the elevator, I heard a sudden rattling roar. When I got outside, a few Olympic volunteers threw open the front entrances to the Iceberg and ran out past me waving Russian flags.

Wait a minute, could it be …?

These Olympics have not been smooth for the sport of figure skating; the men’s long program was kind of a disaster, and the ice dance and team events were marred by allegations of a fix being in. I hadn’t found the evidence of that to be all too compelling, but now I worry I was being too naive. After Thursday night, I’m basically operating under the assumption that every event I’ve ever seen has been orchestrated by an evil consortium of joyless functionaries fiddling around with purse and puppet strings. Maybe you just have to roll with it, like it’s part of the game. The ice may be flat, but it feels more like a slippery slope.

It’s not even that I took issue with a specific result Thursday night. I’ve read enough articles on the subject that have arrived at such varying conclusions that it seems like cases could be made for a range of outcomes. It is, after all, both highly subjective while also being a labyrinth of math.

It’s more that when you read about the judge who had been previously suspended for attempted score-fixing, and then find out that this judge is still allowed to serve at the Olympic Games, but that no, we can’t find out the details of that judge’s scores, you begin to wonder whether the system hasn’t really changed at all since its darkest hour in 2002. Maybe figure skating judges are just like politicians: The mere fact that they want to spend their lives inside this world feels suspicious; the process weeds out normal folks. It’s brutal for the athletes and confusing for the fans.

Inside the arena, Sotnikova was in the mixed zone nervously awaiting Kim’s final score. When she saw that she’d become, by a pretty substantial margin, the first Russian woman to win gold in the event, she ran through a comically long series of twisting corridors and finally found and embraced her coach. Meanwhile, I was also sprinting — OK, jogging — the half-mile around the flame and across Olympic Park to try to catch the tail end of the U.S.-Canada gold-medal women’s hockey game. I only tripped and had to be helped back to my feet by three weirded-out Russians once.

I arrived with about nine minutes to play and the U.S. women leading 2-0. (Typing that sentence is how I imagine testifying at a murder trial must feel.) The American team, by this point, seemed to be hanging back a little bit to protect its lead, but as the minutes ticked by, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the defending gold medalists would be able to overcome the deficit in time. With 3:26 to play, though, Canada got on the board when Brianne Jenner’s shot ricocheted off a U.S. player and beat Jessie Vetter to end her shutout.

It’s typical to see an odd bounce or controversial penalty in a hockey game. What stuck out about the final minutes of the gold-medal matchup, though, was the way these moments began playing a drunken game of leapfrog with one another. A linesman got in the way of Canada’s Catherine Ward, accidentally allowing the U.S. to shoot empty net to all but seal the game. The puck traveled the length of the ice, headed alone and only toward the net … and hit the post. The “one inch the other way” speech from Mighty Ducks came to mind.

With just less than a minute to play, Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game and caused the many, many Canadians inside Bolshoy Ice Dome to erupt. (Poulin was the hero the last time these two teams met in the Olympic gold-medal round, in Vancouver in 2010, when, as the youngest player on the team, she scored two first-period goals in less than three minutes that the Americans had no answer for.) Considering the history of the USA-Canada rivalry, an overtime gold-medal game seemed preordained.

The extra period was a confusing and penalty-ridden series of events that began with a penalty on Ward and, six seconds later, on the USA’s Jocelyne Lamoureux. At one point the teams were skating 3-on-3 across the huge Olympic ice, which sounds fun in theory but kind of looked ridiculous. Next came a did-she-or-didn’t-she-deserve-a-penalty-shot tangle between Hayley Wickenheiser and Hilary Knight. (It was ruled a penalty, but not a penalty shot, which seemed like strange middle ground.) You wondered if the figure skating judges were up there somewhere on high, smiling at this confusing series of events.

And then it happened, and again it was Poulin, this time knocking in to finish a good passing sequence by Canada on a 4-on-3. The American players crumpled in place as the Canadians leapt in the air. Unlike 2010 in Vancouver, this U.S. team was expected to win gold, and it had been minutes away from finally getting to gnaw on those medals only to have them snatched. Most of the Canadian team had already thrown their helmets in the air, but the Americans stood frozen, unable to reach up and take theirs off.

Julie Chu skated over to a red-faced Amanda Kessel, pulled their helmets together, and began talking in her ear. You could see Kessel nodding, nodding; the scene was not unlike what I’d witnessed earlier at figure skating as coaches consoled their girls in the kiss-and-cry booth. Except in this case, the coach-figure was a teammate, one skating in her fourth Olympics and, for the fourth time, missing out on the gold. She rubbed Kessel’s back and then moved on to try to comfort someone else. Today, she was named the flag-bearer for the U.S. closing ceremony delegation.

I’ll be haunted for quite some time by the faces on the American women as they were kept on the carved-up ice for a miserable silver-medal presentation — their mouths twisted uncontrollably downward and their eyeliner running with their tears. Next to them, the Canadians draped themselves in flags and looked up to find their parents in the crowd and rocked from skate to skate. (The Swiss team, which finished with the bronze, were brought out in jerseys and leggings and just seemed happy to be in the conversation.)

Later, Canada coach Kevin Dineen, who was fired by the Florida Panthers in November and only came to coach the women’s national team two months ago after Dan Church resigned, tried to comprehend his career’s sudden turn. “I took a little bit of a left turn to get here.”

Katey Stone, the U.S. coach, corrected him. “I think you took a right turn.”

You just never know. Consider the empty-net attempt that had hit the post. One little rut in the ice surface, one small difference in drag, and we’d be living in an alternate universe — one in which the obstructive official who allowed the U.S. to get the shot off would be harangued by millions of Canadians while the Americans would be feted on Today for weeks.

That sheet of ice can propel you forward, or it can land you on your back. One day your blade might catch it cleanly, and the next day it might be your shoulder that makes medal-squandering contact first. The good news is that the ice can always be resurfaced, a new layer placed atop the last. The bad news is that at the Olympics, the Zamboni only operates every four years.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Katie Baker, Sochi, Team Usa, Team Canada, Hockey, Curling, Figure Skating

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes