It's Russians, then everybody else in figure skating short program
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Even before the first figure-skater's blade carved a mark on the surface of the Gangneung Ice Arena in the women's short program, the question wasn't one of the razor-thin margins decided by barely perceptible wobbles. It was a question of gaps -- wide, yawning gaps between the elite Russian-born skaters and the rest of the world.
As expected, the Russian teens who have dominated the world stage all season -- 15-year-old Alina Zagitova and two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, float impossibly high above the rest -- part ballerina, part butterfly -- tricking their adoring audience into believing that what they do is simply too pretty to be a sport.
Yet figure skating is a cruel and often cutthroat sport, as a succession of rivals were reminded, alternately falling and faltering in programs they had polished for months, precisely for this moment.
All three Americans -- Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell -- stumbled one after another in performances that fell short of their dreams and sadly short of their abilities. They ended up ninth, 10th and 11th, respectively, suggesting it's near impossible that any of them close the gap in the decisive free skate on Friday (8 p.m. ET Thursday).
That will extend an Olympic medal drought for U.S. women's figure-skater yet another four years. It has been 16 years since the last American woman won Olympic figure-skating gold -- Sarah Hughes, in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. And it has been 12 years since an American woman won an Olympic medal of any sort -- Sasha Cohen's silver at the 2006 Turin Games, although Nagasu and Gracie Gold finished fourth at the 2010 and 2014 Games, respectively.
The current world standard is simply beyond the Americans' grasp, as Zagitova and Medvedeva demonstrated, taking turns shattering world-record scores for a short program.
The Russians, competing here as Olympic Athletes from Russia, boast technical expertise and artistry that tower above those of the rivals. Moreover, they are shrewd in structuring the programs -- putting the more difficult elements last rather than early in the program, to collect bonus points for rigor when skaters' legs are heavy and fatigued.
Medvedeva shattered her own world record to move into first, with five skaters remaining, with an exquisite skate to Chopin's "Nocturne."
Zagitova, who won the Grand Prix Final and European Figure Skating Championship this season, delivered higher marks (82.92) to clinch first heading into the free skate.
Medvedeva is second (81.61). And Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond is third (78.87).
For Nagasu, there were tears amid deserved pride after she fell on the high-risk triple axel that opens her program. She nailed the jump in the previous week's team competition, becoming the first American woman to do so in an Olympics (and only the third in history, joining former Japanese champions Midori Ito and Mao Asada). This time, Nagasu faltered, over-rotating the jump out of adrenaline, she explained afterward, causing her to lose her positioning in midair. She came down on one knee and two hands to steady herself, then popped up and skated on, completing the routine solidly.
"Yes, I'm mad, and yes I'm upset," Naagsu explained, asked to recount what went wrong by a succession of interviewers, "but I made it here, and that's the hard part."
The fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Nagasu was snubbed for a spot on the 2014 Olympic squad. Refusing to quit, she made mastering the triple axel the focus of her training these past four years, all for another shot at an Olympic medal.
"This isn't what I wanted," Nagasu said, "but at the same time, you can't always have what you want. I'm so incredibly proud of myself for taking that fall and continuing the rest of the program and getting every element done.'
Tennell, 20, the recently minted U.S. Figure Skating champion who had only recently emerged on the international scene, had the challenge of competing first. Known as a rock-solid jumper, Tennell had planned an ambitious program that opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. But her timing was off on the first of the two jumps, which made the second element impossible to complete, and she fell.
Tennell couldn't remember the last time she'd fallen in a competition and attributed the uncharacteristic error not to the nerves of competing in her first Olympics Games but to the simple fact of being human.
"We all make mistakes," said Tennell, who prepared for her performance as she routinely does, eating a bowl of Cornflakes, listening to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and sitting still as her mother bundled her long blonde hair in a bun.
Her score (64.01). reflected a one-point deduction for the fall and relatively low marks for the artistic elements (component scores) of her programs, such as transitions and interpretation of the music, in this case, from the score of the South Korean War film, "Taeguki." But because of her program's overall technical difficulty, including a triple loop and double axel in the second half of the program, Tennell held onto first through the next 17 skaters, finally bumped by Japan's Kaori Sakamoto.
Chen, 18, also a first-time Olympian, was the last American to go, came closest to delivering a pristine performance. Skating to music from the film, "On Golden Pond," which opened with birdsong, Chen wore a sequined white dress with a feather-like ruffle down one sleeve. But after her first graceful steps, she put a hand down on her opening triple Lutz and was forced to abandon the second element of the high-value combination.