US Olympic Figure Skating: Ranking the Top 20 Moments of All Time

James McMahonContributor IFebruary 5, 2014

US Olympic Figure Skating: Ranking the Top 20 Moments of All Time

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    John Redman/Associated Press

    During a rich and storied Olympic history, American figure skaters have delivered their fair share of magical medal moments and unexpected feats of athleticism and skill.

    Since 1948, the United States has won 14 gold medals delivered by 13 skaters, many of whom rank among the most beloved athletes in our country's history. Overall, U.S. figure skating has produced an impressive 46 medal moments of one kind or another.

    Some of those triumphs came from decorated skaters who delivered on the greatest of expectations from under the brightest of spotlights. Other memorable moments came from unheralded skaters who burst onto the Olympic ice to claim unexpected glory, be it gold or otherwise.

    Here’s a look at the top 20 figure skating moments and accomplishments in U.S. Olympic history, a grand past that might very well be added to during the Sochi Winter Games during the next couple of weeks.

20. Tiffany Chin Blazes Olympic Trail for Future Asian-Americans in 1984 Games

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    With a graceful and elegant performance in the 1984 Sarajevo Games, then-16-year-old Tiffany Chin signaled the beginning of the rise of Asian-American excellence in U.S. Olympic figure skating that would deliver the likes of Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan soon thereafter.

    Chin, who finished a surprising fourth in Sarajevo, delivered an unexpectedly strong free skate that nearly earned her a bronze medal while facing a world-class group of skaters that included Katarina Witt and Soviet Kira Ivanova. Her rare combination of grace and athleticism promised great things to come for the American, but injuries would prevent her from competing in the 1988 Calgary Games.

    That said, the importance of Chin’s medal-worthy performance in those Winter Olympics opened the door for the great Asian-American skaters who would follow her just several years later.

19. 14-Year-Old Scott Allen Wins Bronze Medal at 1964 Innsbruck Olympics

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    Two days before his 15th birthday, Scott Allen skated to a bronze medal at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, making him the youngest Olympian in the history of the Winter Games at the time.

    While Allen’s memorable performance against older and more experienced medal contenders wasn't necessarily a surprise, it’s an incredible feat for a 14-year-old to deliver a medal performance under such intense Olympic pressure.

    Allen, who finished just several points outside of the silver medal, entered the Games as the reigning U.S. national champion and would go on to add a silver medal at the 1965 World Championships. He remains the youngest male and individual medalist in Winter Games history.

    Scenes from his historic skate can be seen at the 1:58 mark of the above video.

18. Debi Thomas Becomes First African-American Medalist in 1988 Winter Games

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    The 1988 Olympic ladies figure skating competition was destined to belong to East Germany’s Katarina Witt, but that didn't stop American Debi Thomas from putting her own groundbreaking stamp on the Calgary Games.

    On the heels of her second national championship title, Thomas skated to the bronze medal at the 1988 Games and became the first African-American to medal in the Winter Olympics. By her lofty standards, the Calgary performance was likely not Thomas’ best, but there’s no denying it led the way for more African-American Olympians who have followed her, including modern-day stars like speedskater Shani Davis.

    While certainly a trailblazer, Thomas’ third-place showing in Calgary wasn't entirely unexpected. The Stanford alum and current orthopedic surgeon won both the 1986 U.S. national championships and World Championships and was named that year's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year.

17. Paul Wylie Shocks 1992 Albertville Olympics with Silver-Medal Performance

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    Given his limited resume heading into the 1992 Olympics, not only was little expected of Paul Wylie in Albertville, France, but many also questioned his mere presence on the team.

    Wylie had never won a national championship or placed better than ninth in the World Championships, yet in one of the biggest surprises in U.S. Olympic figure skating history, the American delivered a pair of terrific performances in France to claim the silver medal.

    Wylie was in third after a strong short program and proceeded to put down the free skate of his life, pulling off a triple Axel as part of a double-toe-loop combination. He was spot-on with his spins and overall choreography.

    The effort was so good that the American received two first-place votes but ultimately finished just behind Viktor Petrenko in a tight and unexpected battle for gold. The silver-medal performance gave the U.S. a men’s medal in four consecutive Olympics at the time.

16. U.S. Men Sweep 1956 Cortina D’Ampezzo Olympics

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    The 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games will be largely remembered for the dominant performance of the U.S. Olympic men’s figure skating team, which captured all three medals in the men’s competition.

    Led by Hayes Alan Jenkins’ gold-medal performance, the American men swept the podium for the first and only time in its Olympic history. Ronnie Robertson and David Jenkins added silver and bronze medals, respectively.

    The brother tandem of Hayes and David Jenkins were the catalysts for the inspiring American effort in Italy, which followed the 1952 Oslo Olympics, where the United States won both a gold and bronze medal as well.

15. Michelle Kwan Brilliant but Defeated in 1998 Nagano Olympics

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    Michelle Kwan is arguably the most unlucky woman in U.S. figure skating history, a status that was on full display in the 1998 Nagano Games.

    The heavily decorated and talented skater claimed a pair of Olympic medals during her run atop the American ranks, but it was in Nagano where she performed the best free skate of her life only to be outdone by 15-year-old Tara Lipinski.

    Skating ahead of Lipinski, Kwan performed nearly flawlessly, laying down a gorgeous triple Lutz and triple-toe-loop toward the end of her long program that seemed to promise victory. Emotion poured out of the 17-year-old as the potential of gold brought her to tears. 

    Then came Lipinski’s stunning free skate performance, and Kwan was left with the disappointment of a silver medal. It was a devastating setback that robbed the American of her best-ever chance to win gold.

    Four years later, she again fell short, winning bronze at the Salt Lake Games. An injury prevented the five-time world champion from competing in the 2006 Winter Games. 

14. Nancy Kerrigan Moves Past Attack, Captures Silver at 1994 Olympics

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    Seven weeks after suffering a clubbing to her right knee in a brutal attack planned by rival Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, Nancy Kerrigan wowed the world with her silver-medal performance at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, which followed a bronze medal skate in the 1990 Games.

    In fact, her brilliant performance in the free skate program was believed by many to be worthy of the gold medal that was actually captured by Oksana Baiul. In what was one of the most controversial decisions in the East vs. West Cold War era, Kerrigan lost out to the Ukrainian, 5-4.

    Coupled with the controversy surrounding her attack, the judges’ decision made Kerrigan one of the most sympathetic and likable figures in the history of U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating. She handled the disappointment of missing out on gold with grace and dignity and remains one of America's most beloved figure skaters of all time.

13. Timothy Goebel Lands Historic Three Quads at Salt Lake Games

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Affectionately known as the “Quad King,” Timothy Goebel became the first and only man to ever land three quadruple jumps in a single Olympic program during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

    While the performance was only good enough to deliver the then-21-year-old a bronze medal behind a pair of powerful Russian skaters, it remains one of the most impressive and memorable skates by an American Olympian in recent memory. The effort also delivered the U.S. Olympic men's figure skating team its first medal since 1992.

    The amazing effort made the reigning 2002 national championships silver medalist an instant star of the stateside Olympic Games, earning him appearances on The Today Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the hours following the jumps. 

    Goebel’s subsequent attempt to make the 2006 Olympics fell short with a seventh-place finish in the national championships, leaving his triple quad as his lasting gift to U.S. Olympic figure skating history.

12. Carol Heiss Wins 1960 Gold, Delivers on Promise to Dying Mother

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    Following her silver medal at the 1956 Winter Games, Carol Heiss promised her dying mother she would remain an amateur and deliver Olympic gold four years later at Squaw Valley. The decorated American skater did more than just keep her word. She did it in dominating fashion. 

    Skating on home ice, Heiss was absolutely brilliant in the 1960 Olympics, claiming first place on all nine judges’ cards as she became just the second American woman to win the gold medal.

    Heiss, who became the first woman to land a double axel in competition three years earlier, was nearly flawless with her graceful and flowing jumps and combinations that had made her such a popular figure in the Squaw Valley Games.

    The triumph didn't just deliver the gold medal that escaped Heiss four years earlier, it also helped a daughter make good on a promise to her mother.

11. Dick Button Lands Double Axel, Wins Second Olympic Gold Medal in Oslo

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    On the heels of his historic gold-medal performance in the 1948 Olympics, Dick Button broke even further ground with his dazzling performance at the 1952 Games in Oslo, Norway.

    Button, who four years earlier became the first man to land a double Axel in Olympic competition, executed the first-ever triple loop in the Winter Games in Oslo.

    Always one to welcome a challenge on the ice, Button kept the move in his program despite the fact that he had a big lead entering the free skate and didn't necessarily need it to win his second gold medal.

    To this day, Button remains the only American figure skater to win Olympic gold twice in his career.

10. Scott Hamilton Ends 24-Year U.S. Gold-Medal Drought in '84 Sarajevo Games

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    One of the United States most popular gold medal champions kicks off our top 10 moments.

    Hamilton entered the 1984 Sarajevo Games as the clear man to beat, and although his performance there was short of perfect, he became the first American to win Olympic gold in more than 24 years.

    With rising Canadian star Brian Orser pushing him in the long program, Hamilton delivered a safe but technically sound performance to claim the gold he seemed destined for when the Games began.

    While by no means ground breaking, his victory was memorable in that it ended a down period in Olympic men’s figure skating history that saw only three medals captured (two bronze, one silver) dating back to David Jenkins’ gold-medal skate in Squaw Valley.

9. Tenley Albright Wins First-Ever Gold by U.S. Woman Skater in '56 Olympics

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    Just weeks before arriving in Cortina d’Ampezzo for the 1956 Winter Games, Tenley Albright lacerated her ankle to the bone in a practice accident, a mishap that threatened to keep her out of the Olympic figure skating competition.

    By the time it had ended, however, Albright had defied the odds and captured the first-ever gold medal in U.S. Olympic women's figure skating history.

    In the first Olympics ever televised around the world, Albright, who had won the silver medal in the 1952 Winter Games, overcame the foot injury and a strong push from fellow American Carol Heiss with a nearly flawless long program to claim the gold medal.

    Albright, who also overcame polio as a young child, would retire a year later, but will always be remembered for the determination she demonstrated in Italy some 12 months earlier.

8. Dorothy Hamill Captures Gold, America's Hearts in 1976 Innsbruck Olympics

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    Skating to music from the great Errol Flynn movies, Dorothy Hamill overcame pre-skate nerves and a misunderstanding with some supporters in the crowd to win 1976 Olympic gold with a graceful performance in Innsbruck, Austria.

    Just moments prior to her free skate program, Hamill saw a sign in the stands that read “Which of the West? Dorothy!” The emotional Hamill was shaken to tears when she first thought the spectators were calling her a witch during the middle of the Cold War.

    Instead, the sign was from fans supporting the American as the skater from the Western Hemisphere who would ultimately defeat East Germany’s Christine Errath.

    Once she realized the support behind her, Hamill relaxed and skated beautifully, delivering gold and becoming America's sweetheart just eight years after Peggy Fleming had done the same.

7. Peggy Fleming Shines 'In Living Color' at '68 Winter Olympics

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    For the first time in its history, the Winter Olympic Games were delivered to a worldwide television audience in color, and Peggy Fleming put down a performance that was worthy of the bright new technology.

    Not only did the American darling dominate a talented field of ladies skaters in Grenoble, France, winning Olympic gold by more than 88 points over her closest competitor, she averted the United States’ first gold-medal shutout in the history of the games.

    By far the most prominent member of that U.S. Olympic team, Fleming would remain one of the most popular American Olympians and is a breast cancer survivor and activist in finding a cure for the disease.

6. Dick Button Wins First U.S. Figure Skating Gold at 1948 St. Moritz Games

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    Not only did Button become the first American figure skater to win a gold medal in the 1948 Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, he helped to revolutionize the sport in the process.

    A true trailblazer, Button became the first man to execute a double Axel in an Olympic competition, and in the process, he earned first-place votes from all but one of the 18 judges.

    Making the effort even more impressive is the fact that Button, who went on to enjoy a long and successful career in figure skating commentary, had just landed the move for the first time only two days earlier. It was a gutsy move that cemented Button's unrivaled place in men's Olympic figure skating lore.

5. Kristi Yamaguchi Delivers Graceful Gold Medal Skate in '92 Albertville Games

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    It's on to the top five with one of the greatest-ever American Olympic ladies figure skaters.

    Kristi Yamaguchi didn't just end a 16-year gold-medal drought for U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating at the 1992 Albertville Games; she reminded the world that there was still a place in the sport for artistry, style and grace.

    While her closest competitors, which included fellow American Tonya Harding, were attempting and missing difficult triple Axels in their free skate programs in Albertville, Yamaguchi focused on her triple-triple combinations and artistic choreography to overcome a slipup or two and ultimately claim the first medal for U.S. women's figure skating since Dorothy Hamill in 1976.

    With the victory, Yamaguchi, who decided not to defend the gold medal just two years later in Lillehammer at the age of 24, became the first Asian-American female to win Olympic gold in any sport.

4. Evan Lysacek Wins Vancouver Gold Without Landing Single Quad

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    In a tense and extremely tight battle with Russian power Evgeni Plushenko, Evan Lysacek captured Vancouver gold in stunning fashion over the defending Olympic champion, ending a miserable stretch of 22 years without an Olympic victory by a U.S. figure skating man.

    The American delivered a clean free skate to rally from second place following the short program, ultimately outlasting Plushenko by 1.31 points. What surprised most people about the upset, however, was the fact that Lysacek won the gold over the previously dominant Olympic champion without landing a quadruple jump in the free skate.

    What he did do, however, was outduel the heavily favored Plushenko on technical merit, hitting all of the jumps and spins he attempted while delivering an artistic skate. Ultimately, that proved enough for Lysacek to deliver just the seventh gold in U.S. Olympic men’s figure skating history.

3. Tara Lipinski Becomes Youngest-Ever Olympic Gold-Medal Skater at Nagano Games

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    We've now arrived at the three greatest figure skating moments in U.S. Olympic history and the skaters who delivered them.

    With an electrifying free skate program that belied her age and limited international experience, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski made history in the 1998 Nagano Games as the youngest figure skater to win an Olympic gold medal.

    In an awesome platform for American ladies figure skating, Lipinski battled then-17-year-old Kwan in a competition that came all the way down to the end of a free skate program in which both U.S. stars skated almost flawlessly.

    Largely based on technical merit, Lipinski won the competition and denied Kwan a gold medal that would continue to escape her in future Olympics.

    Not only does Lipinski’s performance rank among the best ever in U.S. Olympic history, but it’s also one that current 15-year-old Sochi Olympian Polina Edmunds might want to study before taking the ice in the upcoming 2014 Olympics.

2. Sarah Hughes Rallies for Impossible Gold at 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

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    If the Olympic triumphs we don’t see coming are the most enjoyable to watch unfold, few can top the rally pulled off by Sarah Hughes to win gold on her home soil during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

    With the performance of her life, Hughes soared from fourth place to the gold medal podium with a magnificent free skate that shocked the Games.

    After a safe short program, Hughes glided through a free skate that included seven triple jumps—five in combination—that were all far more difficult than anything the bronze-winning Kwan or silver-medalist Irina Slutskaya attempted.

    Hughes, who was only 16 during the Salt Lake Games, is the last American to claim the gold medal and sits alongside the likes of Fleming, Hamill and Lipinski in the annals of the most beloved female figure skaters in U.S. Olympic history.

1. Brian Boitano Wins 'Battle of the Brians' at 1998 Nagano Olympics

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    And now for the moment that rises above all others.

    Brian Boitano didn't just win Olympic gold in the 1988 Calgary Games; he staged one of the most thrilling battles of the modern era with Canadian rival Brian Orser.

    Trailing Orser after the short program, Boitano delivered what is among the greatest ever Olympic free skates, in which he became the first American skater to land a triple Axel.

    Although Orser fought Boitano skate for skate, he recorded a two-footed landing on a triple flip jump and passed on his own triple Axel to finish just behind his American friend in a thrilling contest that was decided in a 5-4 split among the judges.

    Still known today as the “Battle of the Brians,” Boitano’s victory remains the most epic in U.S. Olympic figure skating history.