SOCHI, Russia —The U.S. team was one day away from history. After winning a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics, the streak ended Saturday on Day 14. Thanks to the men's hockey team, which played as if the Americans wanted to be anywhere else but in the bronze-medal game against Finland.
As the NHL and players' union debate future involvement in the Olympics, the 5-0 loss made a statement. With only a bronze medal at stake, were the American stars more concerned with rejoining their NHL teams instead of showing up at the Bolshoy Ice Dome?
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"I'm kind of embarrassed where we're at now," U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter said.
Heading into the final day of competition, the U.S. team fell behind Russia in the medal race. With 27 medals, two fewer than the Russians, the Americans virtually have no shot at catching up in the overall count. They might even be passed by Norway, which has 26 medals.
With only three medal events left Sunday, the Russians are likely to get at least 30 to finish atop the medal count. After two runs in four-man bobsled, Russia's Alexander Zubkov held a slim lead over Latvia's top team heading into the final two runs. American Steven Holcomb and his four-man team was fourth after two runs, one-hundredth of a second behind the top sled from Germany.
On the positive side, the 27 medals is the most the U.S. team has won in a Winter Olympics held outside of North America. Still it is way below the mark set in Vancouver. Four years ago, the U.S. turned in its best performance in history with 37 medals, the most ever won by any nation at a single Winter Games.
The Americans went into Sochi not expecting a repeat of that medal haul.
"Vancouver was a once-in-a-lifetime performance by our team," USOC CEO Scott Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports last week "While that's a good benchmark from an aspirational standpoint, it's not a realistic expectation every time we compete because it was just so special. It was like competing on home soil, our time zone, our culture, our food — it was that combined with the fact that our athletes had a lot of lifetime-best performances."
Even so, the U.S. team didn't expect such a dismal showing from its speedskating teams. In long track, the Americans were shut out of a medal for the first time since 1984 and one of the sport's all-time greats, Shani Davis, ended his Olympic career with disappointment, finishing 8th and 11th.
"We weren't the only national team that got smoked by the Netherlands," Blackmun said Saturday. The Dutch won 21 of 30 individual medals. Blackmun once again said it wasn't about the suits. Amid the struggles, skaters blamed their new Under Armour suits for the underwhelming performance. Truth is, most seemed to run out of gas in the home stretch, which raised questions about their conditioning.
As the governing body focused on the project with Under Armour and extolled its cutting edge technology, it failed to prepare for the conditions in Sochi. The team trained the entire year in conditions opposite from that in Sochi, which is below sea level on slow ice in humidity. The team trains in Salt Lake City on fast ice and then prepared for Sochi by practicing at altitude on an outside track in Italy.
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The governing body was in disarray for much of the last year and the former executive director resigned under pressure. Some insiders blamed the USOC for not stepping in soon enough as U.S. Speedskating reeled after the short track team dealt with issues beyond the ice. Amid a skate-tampering incident, the head coach was fired, and several athletes filed a grievance against the governing body and a lengthy arbitration process ensued.
In figure skating, the men and women had their worst finish since 1936. "Why we may not be winning as many medals in certain sports that we'd like to, we're doing extremely well," said Alan Ashley, the USOC's chief of high performance. "It's not as though we're doing worse, the whole level of competition across the world and the diversity across the board, is growing,"
Twelve of the USA's medals came from free skiing and snowboarding, including six of nine gold medals.
Soon after the men's hockey loss to Finland on Saturday night, the party at USA House turned up a notch. The U.S. women's hockey team pushed back the couches and created a dance floor. Mikaela Shiffrin, who was just awarded her gold medal for women's slalom in the Olympic Park, joined in. As Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance with Somebody played in the background, the athletes took to the floor. They cheered on the men's bobsled team, shown on the big screen, and the dancing only stopped when the group paused to cheer on Holcomb and his four-man team.
Heading into the Sochi, with all the concerns about security, preparation and politics, USOC officials went to great lengths to praise these much-maligned Games in their closing news conference on Saturday.
"They've done a phenomenal job," said USOC chairman Larry Probst, mentioning everything from smooth transportation to Vladimir Putin's presence throughout the previous 15 days. "(Putin) has really owned these Games," he said.
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Amid #SochiProblems, big and small, the most expensive Games in history at $51 billion, the U.S. delegation will leave Russia with few complaints. "We are very, very impressed," CEO Scott Blackmun said.
In the weeks before Sochi, hockey player Julie Chu, the flagbearer for Sunday's closing ceremony, said she was asked about Russia's anti-gay laws more than any other topic. Chu said all the athletes felt welcomed. "It's been a nonfactor here," Chu said. "This has been an incredibly enjoyable experience."