There are many candidates for Thursday’s Olympic Stud of the Day, an EW.com tradition dating back to the 2008 Summer Games that honors the athlete who was the night’s biggest/coolest badass. The U.S.’s Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy, and Nick Goepper swept the inaugural men’s ski slopestyle event – a feat the U.S. has only accomplished twice before in Winter Olympics history. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu became the first male figure skater to ever score above 100 points for a short program. Zhang Hong was the first Chinese speed skater to win long-track gold. But we’re going to give the honor to figure skater Jeremy Abbott.
America’s Abbott took to the ice in the men’s individual event hoping to redeem himself after falling on a quad in the team competition. And what happened? He fell again. Harder. I watched it air live Thursday morning on NBCSN and gasped when he slid into the wall and stayed down. I 100 percent expected him to stop the program (and 50 percent expected him to lie there sobbing before he’d leave the rink). This was his absolute worst nightmare coming true. But then… he got up. The crowd cheered, then clapped along to his music for the rest of the program. He landed his triple lutz-triple toe combination and stood up on the triple axel. When the music stopped, he was smiling. SMILING. It gave me chills.
That was THE deciding moment of Abbott’s life: Think about how different it would be now if he had quit. It’s a reminder for us all to get up, because when you do, you give yourself a chance to not only survive the nightmare but to finally be free of it. Here’s hoping for a nerves-free Feb. 14 free skate, which he enters in 15th place. This also reminds me of the movie Tin Cup, when Kevin Costner’s character realizes he just gave away the U.S. Open and shot a 12: ”You sure did,” Rene Russo’s character tells him. “It was the greatest 12 of all time. No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won… but they’ll remember your 12! My, God, Roy, it was…Well, it’s immortal!” That word might be a little strong here, but the truth is, we’re not going to forget this moment. Abbott doesn’t want us to: “I think my personal story has always been about perseverance and always getting up when you fall. So maybe I’m not Olympic champion, but if nothing else, I can teach the world that,” he said afterward. And I love how he acknowledged that it was the crowd who made him realize – when he was in shock and pain – that he should continue skating.
PLUSHENKO’S LONG GOODBYE: I also gasped when Evgeni Plushenko skated to the judges instead of to center ice when it was his turn to perform his free skate. Like Scott Hamilton, I was initially skeptical when Plushenko’s coach called NBC’s camera over backstage to show the scar on his spine.
During his warmup, Plushenko looked to be in pain landing one triple axel, then opened up on another. “I’m not able to skate,” we heard him tell the judge. When the arena announcer broke the news to the audience, there was a stunned silence and then applause as it sunk in – Plushenko is retiring. Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski, and Terry Gannon, who do live commentary on NBCSN, said they believed Plushenko really intended to skate in the single’s event because backing out at that moment did Russia no good: If he’d bailed after the team event (which I thought he might, since he talked about his back hurting immediately following that free skate), Russia’s national champion could have stepped in. But waiting till the last second like this, Russia has no man in the competition. Hamilton believed it was unplanned as well. My question: If the IOC suspected Russia had premeditated a bait-and-switch – Plushenko skates for the team event to medal in his fourth Olympics, then bows out so the young gun gets his (rightful) shot in Russia’s one men’s spot – could the team gold have been taken away? Regardless, Plushenko’s body is done. His message to fans: “I am normal people like you. I am not robot.”
JASON BROWN’S FINE HELLO: Skating to Prince’s “The Question of U,” lovable Brown looked much more relaxed than he did performing his “Riverdance” free skate for the U.S. in the team event.
I love anyone who 1.) does a ‘Tano lutz and 2.) actually looks out into the audience and makes you feel like he wants to entertain you as much as he wants to score points. You could argue “entertaining” shouldn’t be among an athlete’s priorities in a sport, but when there’s music involved, it’s an innate factor. It’s why, if you ask me, women’s gymnastics floor routines aren’t as fun to watch as they used to be. If you’re not going to use the music, don’t use music. Then there’s no false hope. But back to Brown. He scored a personal best and finished the night in sixth without attempting a quad. That puts him behind Japan’s Hanyu, who combines jumps so gorgeous you find yourself wanting to comment on air position – air position! – and an ability to entertain.
Second place finisher Patrick Chan, the three-time reigning world champion trying to become the first Canadian man to win at the Olympics, is also reminding me of Brian Boitano.
Sitting in third place entering the free skate is Spain’s Javier Fernandez, Hanyu’s training partner under coach Brian Orser. He skated to a song called “Satan Takes a Holiday” and wore a costume nearly as puzzling as Celine Dion donning a backwards tuxedo jacket.
Fourth is Daisuke Takahashi, who is to Japan what Plushenko is to Russia and is also a man who knows how to wear sequins (if you must).
And in fifth, you’ve got Germany’s Peter Liebers, whose “Clocks” short program NBC didn’t have time to show. Since you can’t fast-forward the replays on NBCOlympics.com, allow me to please embed two of the programs you’re sorry you didn’t see in primetime (performed at other competitions).
Czech Republic’s Tomas Veneer landed in 13th skating a program to “Dueling Banjos” from the Deliverance soundtrack. You read that right.
Canada’s Kevin Reynolds and his hair are in 17th after his program to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
THE SLOPESTYLE BOYS: Get out the ceremonial broom! No really.
— US Olympic Team (@USOlympic) February 13, 2014
While I enjoy watching snowboard slopestyle (particularly stylish gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg), I’d rather watch ski slopestyle if you made me choose. The guys seem more inventive in the rails section and more creative in their jumps. Goepper, who was considered the favorite after defending his X Games gold last month, did that middle jump where he crossed and uncrossed his skis – a move called a Screamin’ Seemann (named after Chris Seemann), but apparently the commentators didn’t want to say that phrase in primetime. Pity. That said, the NBC commentators were infinitely better than the gent who provided play-by-play on the host feed that streamed live on NBCOlympics.com. (Yes, I was up 1:15 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. ET watching qualifying and finals, singing “America, F— Yeah” from Team America: World Police when all four U.S. athletes, including eventual ninth place finisher Bobby Brown, made it into the latter.) The TV analysts made you understand the difficulty of an unnatural switch triple cork 1260 and nose butter triple 1620, and appreciate the lengths these guys were sailing (in some cases, longer than an NBA court), that sweet sound of a stomped landing, and the awesomeness that is 22 year-old Swede Henrik Harlaut, who wears 4X pants that literally fall off of him. Henrik, we were told, was inspired by Cool Runnings – the movie about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team – to carry an uncooked egg in his pocket while he took his runs for good luck. You can guess how that went…
Still, I’m glad the commentators seconded the idea I’ve been pitching all week. (The four American guys should get an endorsement deal for boxer briefs.)
Bringing it back to the U.S. medalists, they appear to be the sweetest guys in the mountain village. THEIR TOP 5 MOST PRECIOUS MOMENTS:
1. Gold medalist Joss Christensen, who lost his father last August and competed with a picture of him in his pocket, embracing his mother post-victory and telling her that he loves her.
2. Silver medalist Gus Kenworthy, who had good karma after rescuing stray Sochi puppies, saying “Hey, mom” into the camera more than once.
3. That entire package on bronze medalist Nick Goepper, which showed him doing back flips off of anything he could as a child, skiing a self-made rail that ruined his parents’ backyard, and describing how he’d go door-to-door after his father lost his job in the recession asking people if they had odd jobs he could do to help fund his aspiring career. The best moment, of course, was this shot below. But he also loves his mother.
4. Gus excitedly kicking off his skis and tossing his poles.
5. Not shown on NBC but in the livestream: At the flower ceremony on the mountain, Goepper reached for his bouquet from the flower girl before this guy pictured below could do his job and hand it to him. The crowd got a nice chuckle. Also, the boys kept smelling their bouquets, which was adorable.
Their medal ceremony followed later, where the national anthem was sung by ladies standing really close to an NBC mic.
SPEED SKATING CONTROVERSY (NOT REALLY): So you know those fancy new American suits that we’ve heard are the talk of the Games? They may (not) be the reason that the U.S. has yet to win a speed skating medal in Sochi. The women competing Thursday had a patch added over the vent on the back of their suits, hoping it would make them go a little faster. It did not.
Sticking with Kevin Costner movie reference, to me, this sounded like Nuke LaLoosh breathing out of the wrong eyelid. But according to Dan Jansen, it’s more like a skier changing the wax on her skis or a tennis player changing the tension on her racket. So calm down, Dutch press, who are trying to make it into a thing. Stop talking about the thing we no longer walk to talk about! Nothing to see here! China’s Zhang Hong took gold in women’s 1,000M and was predictably followed by two Dutch women (Ireen Wust and Margot Boer). The U.S.’s Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe finished 7th and 8th, respectively.
SKELETON IS STILL CRAZY: Skeleton, if you’re unfamiliar, is that sport where athletes go 78 miles per hour down a mountain face-first on a sled that looks like your drunk uncle taped it together in the garage on Thanksgiving. We got a nice package on the U.S.’s Noelle Pikus-Pace, who missed the Torino games in 2006 after a bobsled hit her at the sliding track and then finished fourth in Vancouver. She’d retired the day after that finish in 2010, feeling like the sacrifice of being away from her family wasn’t worth it. She had a second child, and then in 2012, had a miscarriage at 18 weeks. It was then she returned to skeleton to give herself a focus other than “Why?” Now, however, she does skeleton with her family by her side. So she interrupts workouts to take care of the kids’ “poopies” and travels with them on the circuit: “As the green light goes off, sometimes I just hear, ‘Mama, mama, mama!’ And they’re crying, and I’m like, ‘Okay, focus. I’ll see them in 60 seconds.’”
On to the action: After the first two runs, the favorite, Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, is in first. Pikus-Pace is in second, and her son seems to be having fun with one of those annoying noise-makers.
Russia’s Yelena Nikitina is a surprise third. And USA daredevil Katie Uhlaender, who should be sponsored by The Colbert Report, is in fourth.