The best thing about any Olympic Games, what keeps us glued to the television after all, are the athletes and the beautiful ways they inspire the generations to come. The second best thing? The memories created along the way, from those hair-raising, spine-tingling instances that will get discussed for eternity and immortalized in video, photography or gif-form, to the less widespread occasions that resonate on a more personal level and around niche audiences.
Consequently, mobilizing the perspective to sort through the many moments that could fill this category is more challenging than it looks, yet that’s what I’m (not) paid to do, so here you go: five moments I’ll cherish from the PyeongChang Olympics, in a mixture of monumental upsets and emotional breakthroughs recounted in detail, followed by a list of others that could have easily been featured.
- Biathlete Hanna Öberg romps to startling 15km Individual triumph
The Individual races are biathlon’s longest solo efforts, and far from the most thrilling format when we take into account that they’re contested against the clock, with the favourites spread across the start list and competing detached of references. Still, these are also events where shooting accuracy is of paramount importance, and a clean slate can do wonders on the way to smashing surprises.
With a couple of top-seven finishes under her belt, Swedish Hannah Öberg had already shown good form in Pyeongchang when she departed for her third race of the Winter Games sporting the No. 24 of 86 competitors, however few would have fancied her chances of a medal at the time.
Positioned outside the top 50 in the 2017-18 World Cup ranks and having never medalled amongst the elite, the 22-year-old would remarkably down every single target on a day of instable weather conditions, going 20-of-20 on the range before motioning fast enough through the tracks to hold off a blazing skiing performance by Slovak Anastasyia Kuzmina (2 misses). When Öberg crossed the line to set the fastest time, she collapsed of exhaustion and soon the nerve-racking process of waiting on her luck began.
As the minutes trickled in, one by one the big names did just enough to fall out of contention, and realization that a medal was coming her way started to creep into Öberg’s face on the rest area as the number of athletes still to finish dwindled rapidly. Donning bib 80, double Olympic Champion Laura Dahlmeier represented the last roadblock to a major upset, yet the German flagged in the last loop around the circuit and could only clock the third best time, consummating the young Swede’s delight.
In a perfect representation of the Olympics’ magic, overnight Hanna Öberg went from complete unknown into a national star brimming with confidence, and she punctuated her breakout performance by authoring an incredible comeback in the women’s relay a few days later, vaulting Sweden from eight to second in her anchoring leg to leave PyeongChang with two medals in tow.
- Yun Sung-bin wins historical gold for South Korea in skeleton
In an era where hosting the Olympic Games is an humongous enterprise suited only for a rotating cast of economic powerhouses, historical breakthroughs in home soil can be characterized as a thing of the past, yet it wasn’t that long ago that host nations capitalized on the ultimate Olympic honour by funnelling resources into areas of weakness in order to enjoy major strides in sports that never before formed part of the national conversation.
For South Korea, the Winter Olympics have always been about excelling in ice skating sports, namely figure skating and short track speed skating, and not in the sliding disciplines rooted in Europe and North America, however that changed when Yun Sung-bin’s triumphed in men’s skeleton. Only six years after taking the sport, and four since placing 16th in Sochi, the 23-year-old took full advantage of his familiarity with the Alpensia Sliding Center to record the largest margin of victory in Olympic skeleton history or any sliding event since 1972.
Sung-bin accumulated a ludicrous 1.63 seconds less than silver medallist Nikita Tregubov by posting the best time in all four runs, and he not only became the first Asian to medal in skeleton, but the first man born outside of the two leading continents to win an Olympic sliding event. And just so the symbolism wouldn’t be lost in the Olympic daily shuffle, after breaking the track record in the final descent, Sung-bin was serenaded by a venue overflowing with beaming compatriots, the local fans flocking in a national holiday to see their new hero complete history.
- Jessie Diggins out-sprints Stina Nilsson to secure USA’s first ever Olympic gold in cross-country
There’s no shortage of snow, wilderness or funds that might justify the fact that the United States had never won an Olympic title in cross-country skiing, still that piece of information ringed unequivocally true. Traditionally dominated by Norway, Sweden and Russia, the only previous American honour in the sport dated back to 1976, when Bill Koch claimed silver in the men’s 30km, but that would change on February 21st and in stirring fashion.
One of the most engaging races in cross-country’s Olympic agenda, the women’s team sprint consisted of 6 by 1.25km sprints alternating between 2 teammates, and when the last exchange took place, favourites Norway, Sweden and United States had already wrapped the three podium positions, leaving only the medal distribution to hang on the efforts of American Jessica Diggins and the reigning individual sprint Champion and runner-up, Stina Nilsson (Sweden) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (Norway), respectively.
The Norwegian was the first to make a move on the final lap, but the others glued behind, leapfrogged in the descent and entered the stadium in front, with Falla lagging as Swede and American prepared for the decisive rush. In earnest, Nilsson surged ahead off the final curve, seemingly on her way to victory by way of her formidable finishing speed, but the 26-year-old Diggins jumped out of her shadow and started to erase the deficit stride by stride to arise in front at the finishing line, winning an exhilarating final sprint for Olympic immortality.
Quickly mauled by Kikkan Randall, the teammate with whom Diggins had also won the team sprint at the 2013 World Championships, disbelief and joy irradiated from the American pair’s emotional embrace, a moment that symbolized more than four decades of national frustration leading up to the United States’ first ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing.
- United States finally overthrows Canada for women’s ice hockey gold.
How is it possible that these two teams never disappoint? That United States vs Canada in women’s ice hockey is always synonymous of drama and chaos, enduring moments, heroic performances and everything else that makes hockey great. Four years after a bouncing piece of vulcanized rubber, a post, a soul-crushing ping and Marie-Philip Poulin denied the American players of Olympic glory in Sochi, redemption was once again in their hands, the chance to end Canada’s string of four consecutive gold medals and write a fresh chapter in a sports rivalry with so many twists and turns except when it matters the most.
Superior in the team’s group stage encounter in PyeongChang despite falling to Canada by 2-1, the Americans started the Olympic Final on top, scoring on a powerplay deflection by Hilary Knight in the closing seconds of the first period, but the script flipped quickly in the second, with Haley Irwin batting one home before the inevitable Poulin, who had scored the game-winning-goals in the 2010 and 2014 deciders, drove a dagger into the US heart by taking advantage of some sloppy defence. For the next 26 minutes of playing time, frenzied American pressure and superb goaltending by Canada’s Shannon Szabados hailed no changes, and just as it looked like Poulin would be the hero again, a lackadaisical line switch afforded Monique Lamoureux-Morando a breakaway that she buried for the leveller with less than 7 minutes to go in regulation.
For a second consecutive Olympics, the path for Gold would require the sudden-death, anxiety-inducing overtime, but this time Canada couldn’t convert on a late powerplay, and a delightful Final resorted to a skills competition or, as they call it, the (f*ckin) shootout.
One on one against the goalies, Gigi Marvin (USA) and Meghan Agosta (CAN) scored in consecutive attempts, Amanda Kessel (USA) rifled one to answer right after Melodie Daoust (CAN) pulled off “The Forsberg”, and then, on the sixth American shot, Justine Lamoureux-Davidson carried out the move of a lifetime, faking a backhand before dragging the puck across the body of an helpless Szabados and sliding it into the cage.
Leading 3-2 in the shootout in extra innings, all the Americans needed was a save from Maddie Rooney on Agosta, and the 20-year-old, cool as a cucumber and smiling through her mask, kicked out the final shot of the women’s tournament to end an Olympic drought that mirrored her age. At last, time had come for the tears of frustration and sadness to rain from the eyes of the woman clad in red as blue sweaters piled on top of each other a few meters away.
- Ester Ledecká rocks Alpine skiing world in dazzling Super-G run
“You are first. You are the winner.
I can’t pinpoint the last time TV spectators were treated to a raw exchange between an athlete and the men manning the camera, yet standard procedure went out the window when the object of attention finished the race and stared slack-jawed at the pandemonium spawning, clearly failing to comprehend what the senses were communicating to the brain. The uproar, the flashes, the flabbergasted faces looking at her and, most definitely, that bright green light flaring up on the screen in front. Shock, disbelief, bewilderment and excitement blending inside Ester Ledecká’s head and invading those lucky enough to catch one of the most extraordinary moments in Olympic history.
But let’s rewind the tape. In alpine skiing, the top-10 contenders for each race are allowed to pick their starting positions, choosing odd numbers between 1 and 19. The next group of ranked athletes are assigned the gaping digits (2 to 20), and the remaining names are tucked to the end, completing their runs when the snow is much softer and irregular. Hence, the last participants are not only less qualified, but usually impaired by worse conditions, and that’s why so many declared Austrian Anna Veith, the defending Champion, as the impending winner of the Olympic Super-G shortly after her compatriot Cornelia Huetter (bib 19) clocked the 7th best time. More than half of the 45 competitors were still buying their time in the starting house, yet none had ever finished a Super-G race amongst the elite and, surely, that wouldn’t happen at the friggin’ Olympics.
Now, slot bib 26 into the narrative, a number that belonged to Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká. A full-fledged snowboard star that had accumulated sporadic appearances in the Alpine skiing World Cup since 2016, she only caught the full attention of onlookers some 40 seconds into her run by speeding past the second checking point in a time 0.18s faster than Veith’s. Definitely an interesting mark, though far from unheard off since 14 others had accomplished the same and the much more relevant intermediate three loomed downhill to restore normality. Except, against all odds, it didn’t and green radiated again, this time enclosing a tiny – 0.04s.
Over the next 20 ticks, as many held their breath, Ledecká negotiated a couple of turns, tucked for a long jump, landed nervously and raced to the line, stopping the clock at 1:21.11. Just one hundred of a second better than the previous best, the minimum separation accepted in Alpine skiing, yet more than enough to turn an unassuming 22-year-old from Prague into a household name at home and abroad.
Also in the running:
Martin Fourcade and Simon Schemp produce closest finish in biathlon’s history at men’s mass start.
Marit Bjoergen caps her Olympic career with runaway 30km victory.
Canada and Germany tie for Bobsleigh two-man Olympic title.
Marcel Hirscher and Henrik Kristoffersen implode in the men’s slalom.
“The Rejects” get hot at the right time to earn first curling gold for the United States.
Twin sensations Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva dazzle in women’s figure skating final.
Felix Loch blows three-peat with catastrophic error in final run of men’s luge.
Shaun White uncorks back-to-back 1440s to reclaim men’s snowboard halfpipe.