Early Day 6 returns are in from Sochi, and it's safe to say there are going to be some raised eyebrows for those watching the Winter Olympic action on tape delay.
Fans in the United States will bask in a surprising slopestyle sweep on the men's side, while Chinese speedskating fans will likely run through a gamut of emotions in Thursday's action. Jianrou Li wound up giving the short-track monolith another gold, but that didn't come before a beloved favorite dropped out of the action early.
With only three medal events completed, the overarching takeaways from Sochi remain the same. Norway continues a stellar all-around performance, the Netherlands' success remains only in speedskating and a whole heck of a lot still has to be decided.
In non-medal action, group play in hockey and curling continued. The men's short program in figure skating is also expected to set the tone for Friday's free skate, which is typically one of the most-watched events every four years.
There are still a number of events still remaining on Thursday, but let's check in on the early results and update medal count for participating countries.
|Ladies' 10km Cross-Country Classic||Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland)||Charlotte Kalla (Sweden)||Therese Johaug (Norway)|
|Men's Ski Slopestyle Final||Joss Christensen (United States)||Gus Kenworthy (United States)||Nicholas Goepper (United States)|
|Ladies' 500m Short Track Finals||Jianrou Li (China)||Arianna Fontana (Italy)||Seung-Hi Park (South Korea)|
|Ladies' 1,000m Speedskating||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Team Relay Luge||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Men's 20km Biathalon||N/A||N/A||N/A|
United States Flies Up Rankings With Slopestyle Sweep
So much for the United States' struggles in Sochi. After nearly a week of disappointing showings from stars expected to medal and an overall lack of surprising performances, Thursday's slopestyle skiing event might just have been the fix to get the U.S. some momentum.
Expected to have one medalist in the event (Nick Goepper, a silver) by the Associated Press, the Americans instead picked up their first sweep of these Games. Joss Christensen put up back-to-back runs in the 90s and scored a 95.8 on his first attempt to win his first Olympic medal at age 22. Gus Kenworthy, also in his first Games, picked up a silver, while Goepper rounded out the medalists.
“You just do what you can to get them all ready,” Skogen Sprang, the American freeskiing slopestyle coach, told Mary Pilon of The New York Times. “They did their job and stomped the runs and crushed it. I’m just so stoked for all of them, man.”
A Winter X Games staple, slopestyle skiing made its Olympic debut in Sochi, which makes it a little more understandable the United States would dominate. Bobby Brown's ninth-place finish made four Americans in the top 10. Only Norway, with three competitors, came close to that total. Sweden's Jesper Tjader, picked by the AP as the Olympic favorite, finished 24th.
Like most events on Thursday, the slopestyle was made a little more difficult by the rising temperatures in Sochi. Many competitors were in shirts rather than bulked up, but there were few, if any, complains overall about the conditions.
“The conditions are pretty good except that the landings are getting pretty soft,” said Finland's Antti Ollila said. “It’s never perfect in the first training. They always fix it a little bit. I’m not sure why it became such a big thing.”
The medals sweep in slopestyle brings the United States into second place overall with 12 medals. Only Norway with 13 has more. Germany, due in large part to its dominance on the luge, holds six gold medals. The United States is tied with three other countries (Canada, Norway, the Netherlands) with four.
First-Lap Crash Gives Jianrou Li Short Track Gold in 500 Meters
It was a day filled with disappointment in short-track speedskating. Well, except for Chinese gold medalist Jianrou Li.
Li captured her first Olympic gold medal in 45.263 seconds in the 500 meters on Thursday in a performance that looks utterly dominant on paper. She finished nearly six seconds ahead of silver medalist Arianna Fontana of Italy and more than eight seconds ahead of Seung-Hi Park of South Korea.
Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story. Not even close.
Li was able to dominate one of the fastest and intensely competitive Winter Olympic events after a shocking crash wiped out her three other competitors.
Elise Christie of Great Britain, competing for her country's second short-track medal, attempted to jockey for position in the first lap and accidentally caused a domino crash that took out Park and Fontana. Christie, 23, actually crossed the finish line second but was disqualified for impeding the progress of her competitors.
After the race, she tried to explain what happened, per the Guardian:
Basically, I knew if I sat in third [Li] would come at the end. I had the speed so I moved up, but I was hit on the foot and then hit everyone else. It was a 50/50 call, but everyone has different opinions. There was a little gap and I knew I had more speed at that point. I used my instinct and went for it. Now I am regretting it.
It was the second time on Thursday a crash fundamentally altered the podium. Kexin Fan of China, who was considered the prohibitive favorite for gold coming into the event, crashed out in the semifinals after hitting her own skate and failed to qualify for the final. She had put up the fastest time in both the semifinal and qualifying runs to that point.
With her countrywoman watching on and her closest competitors lying on the ice, all Li had to do was glide her way to victory. Her time was entirely nondescript—it wouldn't have come close to qualifying for the final—the field opening up wide open allowed for a conservative approach. Willie Cornblatt of NBC Olympics highlighted that the 500 meters is typically one of the craziest events every four years:
What did i tell you! Madness! #shorttrack— Willie Cornblatt (@WillieCornblatt) February 13, 2014
Despite the relative unpredictability, the Chinese have reigned supreme in this event for more than a decade. Three different skaters have won the last four golds, including two from Wang Meng in Turin and Vancouver. Meng was unable to defend her title in these Games due to an ankle injury.
Nevertheless, Li picked up the slack and took home the second gold in Sochi for her country.
Justyna Kowalczyk Captures Second Polish Gold in Sochi
Apparently, "go big or go home" is the motto of Poland's Olympic Games. The Polish have managed just two medals thus far in Sochi, placing them behind the likes of Italy, Japan and the Czech Republic in the overall tally.
But both of those medals are the most important.
Justyna Kowalczyk doubled the Polish total on Thursday, skiing the 10-kilometer cross-country trek in 28 minutes, 17.8 seconds to score a dominant victory. Defending 10-kilometer champion Charlotte Kalla of Sweden finished with a silver medal and Therese Johaug of Norway rounded out the medalists, but it was surprising just how big of a gap Kowalczyk opened up from her competitors.
Kalla, who finished her run in 28:36.2, was closer to fifth-place Marit Bjorgen of Norway than she was to Kowalczyk. Bjorgen was a story by herself, as the eight-time Olympic medalist ran out of gas late to narrowly miss out on a medal. She was less than five seconds behind Johaug, a gap almost entirely attributable to her last couple kilos.
Unlike slopestyle, the cross-country seemed far more affected by the conditions. The soft snow combined with higher temperatures to make it difficult to push forward—especially uphill.
"It's incredible. I didn't think I could get a medal at 10 kilometers because it was so tough, but it was tough for everyone," Kalla told reporters. "You have to fight for every meter (in the soft snow). You don't have the high speed on the downhills, as we had at the beginning of the championships."
The rough terrain makes Kowalczyk's triumph all the more impressive. While she refused to make excuses throughout her training, she was suffering from a broken foot that seemingly hampered her splits in the skiathlon. Obviously emotional after the race—she dropped down in exhaustion after crossing the finish line and was seen crying on the podium—Kowalczyk was proud she overcame the adversity.
"It's something big for me because I broke my foot two weeks ago," Kowalczyk said. "I was fighting with myself with this injury."
The Associated Press projected only three medals for Poland, all of which were attributable to Kowalczyk. With some cross-country skiing left to do in Sochi, we'll have to see if she can add another to her growing collection.
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