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Russia Is Dominant On The Ice; Can Team USA Get It Together?

After weeks of almost exclusively embarrassing reports out of Sochi, Russia finally got some good news today, when its star-studded figure skating team handily took home the gold medal in the brand new "mixed team" figure skating event, beating out Canada and the U.S. But what does this mean for the individual events—you know, the important stuff?


The home team of 10 skaters laid the smackdown on its Olympic competition in front of an ecstatic crowd, staking Team Russia's claim as the dominant figure skating presence in Sochi. The results of the competition had basically been determined by the end of the men's free skate, where 31-year-old Olympic gold (and two-time silver) medalist Yevgeny Plushenko clinched the first-place spot and scored 10 points for the team, making it near-impossible for its rivals to catch up. Next came Russia's 15-year-old star-in-the-making Yulia Lipnitskaya, who calmly delivered an enormous 141.51 score, putting her well into first place among the women and launching chatter about the possibility of a gold in the singles event. A solid third-place performance from its ice dancers locked up the win. At the end of the night, Team Russia landed atop the podium with 75 points, Team Canada took silver with 65, and Team U.S.A. won bronze with 60.

While Team Russia asserted its command of the competition early, the U.S. athletes found themselves with a lot of ground to make up early on in the game. In his disastrous men's short program, Jeremy Abbott landed in seventh place after screwing up his quad and several other jumps. Pairs team Marisa Castelli and Simon Shnapir finished their short program in fifth place after botching their side-by-side triple salchows, while Ashley Wagner, who under-rotated her triple flip-triple toe loop combination jump in the women's short, ended up in fourth. (Wagner also got relatively low marks on her component scores, which assess everything from the loosely named "skating skills" to transitions and footwork, and clearly, she wasn't thrilled her score.)

Only because of ice dancing superstars Meryl Davis and Charlie White–who finished in the top spot in both the short and free dances–did the Americans even make it to the second round of competition.


Once they hit their stride, Americans worked fast to make up the points: In her free skate, rising star Gracie Gold delivered a high-scoring, clean program loaded with seven triple jumps–including a triple-triple and a double axel-triple toe loop combo–and two spins of the highest level. Davis and White earned the highest score ever in ice dance. Jason Brown skated a solid performance, barring a fall on his triple salchow, though because he doesn't perform a quad jump in competition his overall technical scores were bound to be lower than his competitors'. And Castelli and Shnapir, who came within inches of landing an enormous quadruple throw salchow, inched up to fourth place. Still, it was too late for the team.

Team Canada, meanwhile, had less ground to make up. The team was consistently strong across the board, clocking in five second-place performances, including impressive showings from pairs team Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, and men's skater Kevin Reynolds, who successfully performed three quads in his free skate. (Plushenko, who performed only one quad and who doubled several jumps in the second half of his program, still beat Reynolds thanks to a strong "program components" score, which, because it judges categories such as "style," "use of finesse to reflect the nuances of the music," and "intellectual involvement," are inherently the more subjective of the two judging categories.) But men's star Patrick Chan, who had a few shaky moments in his short program, came in third in that event, and Canada didn't register a single first-place finish.


Olympic figure skating would hardly resemble itself without scandalous allegations (and sometimes well-founded ones!) of judicial corruption, and this year's contest is no different: in a recent report, the French newspaper L'Equipe anonymously quoted a Russian judge claiming U.S. and Russian judges are conspiring against Canada in the pairs, ice dancing, and team events. The United States Figure Skating Association has denied this allegation, and the International Skating Union doesn't appear to be giving it much credence, nor do the athletes. These results aren't evidence of any conspiracy—Davis and White were just that good, and so were the Russians.

Today capped three days of consistency from Team Russia, which, in team composition and performance style, was working its best angles from day one. In Plushenko, Russia had a charmer and hometown favorite, who was able to win over the crowd–and, presumably, the judges–even when he botched a few jumps and became visibly tired toward the end of his free skate. In pairs team Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov (who skated only the short program, presumably to save energy for the individual competition on Tuesday), it had rock-solid skaters and strong gold medal favorites. In Lipnitskaya, it had the skating world's fastest rising star, whose reputation for consistency and technique is beginning to rival that of defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim. Even Russia's two ice dance teams–Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, and Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev–were incredibly solid, with each clocking in third place performances behind the overwhelming favorites from the U.S. and Canada.


The more high-profile Olympic skating events are yet to come, and Russia's chances at sweeping those are far less likely on the individual level. In fact, there's a conspiracy theory floating around that Plushenko will drop out of the individual men's event, claiming injuries, to let his younger teammate, Maxim Kovtun, compete in the men's singles event.


"I think I'll choose the team event and will give the individual competition to a young and prospective athlete," Plushenko had said in December, before he was named to the Olympic team (and before, evidently, he knew the rules governing that selection process). "I understand everything adequately. It will be enough for me to take part in the team event."

When he was told he couldn't cherry-pick which Olympic events he'd skate in, Plushenko lobbied for the sole men's spot himself, and earned it with a mysterious "private performance" for his country's skating federation. But now, after skating in the event he's stated he was most interested in, he's hinting that he might not be up for the individual men's event.


"The last two jumps I felt a little pain in my spinal cord," Plushenko told reporters after his Sunday performance. "I will have some days off, and I will feel OK. ... First, I need to have a rest. I need to talk to my doctors. Maybe they will say something more about my spinal cord."

Meanwhile, several top athletes–including presumptive ladies' favorite Yuna Kim–weren't eligible to compete in the team competition, so success this weekend may not translate to individual medals.


Still, the team event set the stage for the remainder of the Olympic figure skating competition. Skaters performed the same programs in the team event that they'll present in the individual competitions, which means the judges and the audiences will have already seen them very recently, and will have a sense of their weaknesses and strengths. So someone who performed well in the team event–like Lipnitskaya–will likely go into their individual events with more momentum, more confidence, and, potentially, more sway with the judges. Those who performed poorly, on the other hand, head into the individual competitions having already shown their cards. America's Jeremy Abbott now has to overcome the perception that he'll choke under the pressure of the Olympic stage; and Ashley Wagner has to give judges a reason to upgrade her component scores from the last go-around. Based on what we saw at the team event, it'd be hard to imagine anyone but Davis and White reaching the medal stand. Even Gracie Gold, who turned out a fantastic and nearly clean free skate, earned a score significantly lower Lipnitskaia's – which leaves little room for her on the podium.

Even so, tonight, eight Americans walked away with Olympic medals that weren't even a possibility four years ago.


"I would say that's everybody's dream," Gold told USA Today after the event. "I was doing the program I was trained to do, and I'm thinking, 'I'm looking at the Olympic rings and Sochi.' It has been the best year of my life, hands down."

Lucy Madison is a NYC-based writer and reporter. Her work has appeared at the Awl, the Hairpin, Interview, CBS News, and more. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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