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Many people had their doubts when figure skating adopted a team event for the Olympics, and for good reason. In a sport filled with often-bitter rivals from the same nation, could this me-first competition really generate the unity that fuels traditional teams?
For the U.S. team that won bronze Monday, the answer is a resounding yes.
It was led by two of America’s most veteran skaters—24-year-old Mirai Nagasu and 28-year-old Adam Rippon—who fought off the pressure of knowing they would determine whether their eight-person team would leave the Gangneung Ice Arena as Olympic medalists.
For Nagasu, the night was beyond epic. Her blades permanently etched her name into Olympic history as only the third woman and the first from America to land a triple axel at the Games. The three-and-a-half-revolution jump is the most challenging and elusive feat for female skaters, so extremely iffy that most women aren’t even willing to take up the quest.
“It’s all about the points in figure skating, and how you can outrank your opponents,” Nagasu told Diana Pearl of People before the Games. “And the triple is almost twice the points as a double. It’s kind of like a board game, and that’s my king. So I want to use it as many times as I can.”
After laying down that rock-solid triple axel at the start of her free skate, Nagasu almost seemed to be floating as she breezed through the rest of her nearly flawless program for a career-high score of 137.53.
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That essentially clinched the bronze medal for the U.S. team while also completing a long journey back to the Olympics for Nagasu.
Four years ago, the decision-makers of U.S. Figure Skating chose to ignore Nagasu’s third-place finish at the U.S. championships and instead send fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
That slap could have left Nagasu eternally bitter toward her competitors, especially since she was a proven Olympic performer, having finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But she kept whatever sour feelings she had to herself and ultimately even said yes, the federation’s executives probably made the right decision.
She also refused to dwell on 2014 when she was named to this Olympic team.
“I have always believed that I am an amazing skater regardless of what the results say,” Nagasu said at Nationals. “And I think that determination and confidence has kept me in the game so long.”
In January, Nagasu’s coach Tom Zakrajsek told me, “She has a message for people. When you get knocked down you keep going.”
The triple axel didn’t come easily and often dominated workouts that already were incredibly arduous.
“Mirai sometimes will do three long programs in a day, just because she didn’t like the landing of one jump,” says Zakrajsek. “Most people do one, and then they’re exhausted. Most of the time with Mirai I have to say stop, enough Mirai.”
But while Nagasu’s performance guaranteed the U.S. medal, it was Rippon who gave her some breathing room and also perhaps some added confidence as the Americans adeptly held off the Italians in the battle for the last spot on the podium.
Rippon had his own crusade for redemption, one that was the opposite of Nagasu’s.
At this year’s Nationals in January, Rippon crumbled. He crashed while attempting the only quadruple jump of his free skate and then badly mangled two other jumps before finishing his fourth-place effort humbled and with his head hanging.
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But U.S. Figure Skating stood by Rippon and named him to the Olympic team, saying he was a better hope to deliver a medal than Ross Miner, the surprise second-place finisher at Nationals.
The men’s segment of the team event opened the night, with the U.S. leading Italy by only a single point in the standings. Rippon, needing to outduel Matteo Rizzo, left no doubts while outscoring the Italian, 172.98-156.11.
Had Rippon failed, there would have been a blizzard of questions. Was he the right choice for the Games after botching Nationals? Hadn’t he already stumbled in the face of pressure? And shouldn’t the U.S. have stuck with Nathan Chen in the team event showdown?
Chen, the only male figure skater who’s undefeated this season, perhaps needed the night off after his dismal showing in the team event’s short program. Substituting with Rippon gave the 18-year-old Chen time to regroup and avoid risking another setback that could have shattered his confidence for the men’s singles competition, where he’s expected to contend for gold.
Rippon skated a squeaky-clean program with only one minor glitch and very nearly outpointed Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada. Seeing the judges favor the Russian over Rippon by less than a point left NBC commentator and 1998 gold medalist Tara Lipinski incensed.
“I don’t understand what performance the judges were watching,” said Lipinski, noting that Kolyada had one fall and one other sloppy landing.
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But that scoring squabble didn’t compare to the conflict Rippon had hovering over him as he prepared for his Olympic debut. Rippon, the first U.S. Olympic figure skater to be openly gay while still competing, got into a controversy of sorts last week with Vice President Mike Pence over gay rights, per the New York Times.
Rippon’s Olympic status and openness about his sexuality have raised his profile in Pyeongchang, South Korea, adding to the pressure he faced Monday.
In the end, the U.S. team got just about the best result it could have hoped for.
Nagasu now heads to the singles competition with the judges realizing she’s in full possession of the most lethal weapon in women’s skating. Rippon stands taller than ever. And all eight Americans can feel a collective wave of relief as they move into their individual events knowing they’ll be taking a medal home, no matter what else happens.
So yes, it looks like there is a place in figure skating for teamwork.
Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.