PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Chloe Kim flew, and American hockey fans somehow soared even higher. Mikaela Shiffrin chased history while a curler named John Shuster actually made some. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall dug deep, Shaun White proved that he’s still Shaun White and Mirai Nagasu landed a triple Axel that inspired tears no one wanted to wipe away.
For the 241 Americans who comprised the U.S. Olympic team, these Pyeongchang Olympics were memorable on some nights, historic on others. They faced bitter cold temperatures and red-hot expectations on snow, ice and while fluttering through the air.
But were they a success? It all depends on the measuring stick.
The U.S. contingent finishes these Winter Games with 23 medals, the fewest since the 13 the Americans brought home in 1998. They won 28 in Sochi and a record 37 at the Vancouver Games in 2010. Three countries topped them in them in the medal count here — Norway (39), Germany (31) and Canada (29).
Nine of those U.S. medals were gold, matching the Americans’ totals from each of the past three Olympics.
“I want to look at this and say this is an opportunity for us,” said Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance. “We have this amazing depth, we have these incredible medalists: How do we continue to compete at a higher level and give them what they need going forward? Yeah, I pay attention to the medals too, but I also pay attention to the team, and we’ve got an amazing team.”
The USOC doesn’t usually make its projections public, but the Associated Press obtained an internal chart that shows the American athletes fell well short of the organization’s Pyeongchang projections. The chart indicated the USOC anticipated a minimum of 25 medals here, with an expected target of 37 and an outside possibility of as many as 59.
“I feel like there were a lot of really, really close finishes,” Ashley said. “It was not as though we were in situations where you say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this great achievement,’ and then we were 20th, 40th, 70th, whatever. Instead, we have this huge group of athletes that was this far away from being on the podium.”
American athletes finished in either fourth, fifth or sixth place here 35 times, potential medals if the U.S. Olympian was a split-second faster or perhaps impressed a judge just a bit more.
“I think we can take those fourth through sixth places and help convert them to somebody’s dream of standing on the podium,” Ashley said.
In its own pre-Games projections, the Associated Press predicted the United States would win 40 medals, including 10 golds. Ski racer Lindsey Vonn is a four-time Olympian who won bronze in the women’s downhill and now has three career medals to her name. She called the expectations surrounding gold medals “pretty out of whack.”
“They’re not necessarily what the Olympics are all about,” she said. “The Olympics are a unifying event, one that has profound impact on the entire world, so to quantify it in how many medals you have, I think, is not appropriate and doesn’t respect the athletes and what they’ve put in to be at these Games.”
Of the United States’ 23 medals, 12 were won by women, while the men accounted for nine (plus two others from mixed events). It’s the first time in 20 years that American women topped the men, even though the males on the U.S. team outnumbered the females 134-107.
Shiffrin, the 22-year-old Alpine racer, snowboarder Jamie Anderson and ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani were the only Americans to win two medals in Pyeongchang. From Shiffrin and Kim, the 17-year old snowboarder who won halfpipe gold, to the women’s hockey team and cross-country racers, many days here featured female athletes front and center — and often on the top spot on the podium. After settling for silver or bronze in the past four Olympics, the women’s hockey team beat Canada in a shootout, and Diggins and Randall won the United States’ first women’s cross-country medal.
“Hopefully, young girls see that and they want to follow their dreams, whether that’s cross-country or being a doctor or whatever it may be,” Vonn said.
The Games also highlighted a divide of sorts among the various disciplines. Of the 23 medals, nearly half — 11 — came from the risky, snowy pursuits snowboarding and freestyle skiing, including five of the golds.
“We’re killing it right now,” said 20-year old snowboarder Kyle Mack, who won silver in the men’s big air competition Saturday. “I’m super stoked on how we’ve all done. Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, Jamie Anderson — we have such a strong team right now. It’s so sweet. And we’re all so young and we have so much time to progress and keep working. I expect to see all of us back here at the next one going strong.”
While the U.S. contingent was slow to find much success in the so-called traditional winter sports early in these Games, the highflying, twirling snow magicians took the spotlight, even as their successes each winter continue to highlight a generational divide of sorts.
“I think we definitely get some respect, but I think we deserve more honestly,” said Aaron Blunck, who skied the halfpipe here. “I think it’s pretty hard sometimes, especially within certain divisions. It’s like, okay, we’re considered the daredevil rebels of the sport. It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong. We’re out here chucking ourselves and sending ourselves to the moon. That’s just how we are. We’re adrenaline junkies.”
If anything, their successes highlight some of Team USA’s shortcomings. As happens after every Olympics, each sport will return to the States, celebrate its victories, lick its wounds and figure out how perform even better in four years’ time.
For some, there is more room for growth than others. At these Olympics, for example, the U.S. figure skaters posted their worst finish in the women’s singles competition since World War II, posting ninth-, 10th- and 11th-place finishes. The long-track speedskaters improved on their disastrous 2014 showing, but only by hair, winning one medal here — exactly one more than four years ago. And Pyeongchang marked the first time in 20 years the U.S. men’s Alpine team failed to win a medal.
These struggles weren’t all necessarily surprises, but the Olympics highlighted the competitive gaps some American teams and athletes face. Even before these Games, Bode Miller, the former ski racer who won six medals in five Olympics and served as an NBC analyst in Pyeongchang, said of the men’s Alpine team: “It’s not looking terribly promising in terms of the pipeline.”
The men’s ski team’s best showing here came from Ted Ligety, the 33-year-old who was competing in his fourth Olympics. No one else finished in the top 10 in a single race.
“The big area we’re focusing on right now is a complete evaluation of where we are,” said Sasha Rearick, the men’s Alpine coach. “Take that step back and say, ‘OK, here’s the things we did well, here’s the things we need to improve on.'”
Teams went through major self-evaluations four years ago, too, and some revamped their approaches. It paid off for some — Shuster led the United States to its first gold medal in curling, for example — but not as much for others. The speedskaters blamed their suits in Sochi and came to Pyeongchang raving about how much better preparations had been. Their lone medal, though, came in the women’s team pursuit.
“I feel like we have work to be done,” said skater Jessica Kooreman, the 34-year-old veteran who retired following her final race here. “The field obviously isn’t as deep as we wanted it to be, just with the gap. … All these girls are young. The timing of everything is hard.”
Just like four years ago, the short-track team won one medal here — John-Henry Krueger in the men’s 1,000 — and its women were shut out for a second straight Winter Games.
“We need more women coming out to skate,” said Anthony Barthell, the short-track speedskating coach. “That’s the biggest thing. I guess hopefully these Olympics can kind of be a beginning and bring more people in to the discipline.”
Both the short- and long-track teams helped highlighted one of the USOC’s biggest successes here: its most diverse winter team ever. Team USA featured its first African-American men’s hockey players (Jordan Greenway), short-track skater (Maame Biney) and female long-track skater (Erin Jackson). Six of the 14 members of the U.S. figure skating team were of Asian descent, and two of its most high-profile Olympians — freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon — are openly gay.
“The U.S. is always, we want to think of ourselves as a leader, and it’s important that, if we have that opportunity, then we take advantage of it,” Rippon said, “and we can show the world that no matter who you are, whether you’re a gay athlete or not, that it really has no bearing on what kind of person you are, with the integrity you have, anything like that.”
As with every Olympic Games, a handful of stars exited to one side of the stage, as a new group emerged on the other. Pyeongchang might have been a swan song for iconic Olympians such as Vonn, Ligety, Randall, speedskater Shani Davis, luger Erin Hamlin and snowboarder Kelly Clark, but these Olympics also provided a glimpse of what’s to come — the young stars who surely will be in the spotlight four years from now when the International Olympic Committee packs up its circus and moves it to Beijing.
There’s Kim and Shiffrin and Biney and figure skater Nathan Chen, among others. They were a mix of promise and greatness in Pyeongchang, and winter sports fans will ride their potential through the next quadrennial, hoping 2022 brings even more success than 2018.
The Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper, Chelsea Janes and Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
More from The Daily Gazette: