GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Yuzuru Hanyu wouldn't say he's the greatest of all time. Neither would Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. But as the figure skating competition unfolded at the Pyeongchang Games, there was a palpable sense that greatness was on display. Records were broken and broken again, Winnie the Pooh bears were thrown in the hundreds, and sport melted into art. The 2018 Olympics proved that figure skating is alive and thriving around the world ... just not in the U.S.
Figure skating is generally considered a young person's sport. After all, Russia's Alina Zagitova won gold on Friday at just 15 years, 281 days old. But Russian prodigies aside, experience won out in Pyeongchang.
Five of the seven Canadians who clinched team gold will retire after these Olympics. Germany's Aljona Savchenko, 34, finally won at her fifth Olympics, collapsing onto the ice in relief and disbelief with partner Bruno Massot. Canadian national heroes Virtue, 28, and Moir, 30, added a third gold and fifth overall medal to their collection. All of them made 23-year-old Hanyu look young, but he was defending his gold medal from Sochi. These skaters seemed calm and driven on their way to the podium, unmoved by the glamour of the Olympics, the buzz of celebrity or the emotions of the team event.
The same cannot be said for Team USA.
The Americans walk away from Pyeongchang with one of the lowest medal hauls in their figure skating history: two bronze medals -- one in the team event and another in ice dancing for Maia and Alex Shibutani. Shib Sibs aside, the U.S.'s best skates came in the team event, where Mirai Nagasu became the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics and Adam Rippon did such a stirring long program that social media petitioned to have his score raised.
But the team event, which only debuted in Sochi, became a mental roadblock for the U.S. The athletes seemed so overwhelmed by the euphoria of that medal that the rest of the Olympics felt like a burden at best -- an afterthought at worst. Nagasu, who failed to land the triple axel in either of her individual routines, spoke at length about how mentally exhausted she was by the time she had to skate again.
"It has been so emotionally draining, but this is what I wanted. I've been crying every day since the team event because I was so happy," she said after her long program. "But we had to keep training and training and training. We're just exhausted."
The women did have to wait the longest to skate again, nine days to be exact, but that's no excuse. All three of the eventual medalists participated in the team event, and still managed to stay focused, disciplined and clinical when the time came. The Americans looked fragile and afraid, unprepared for the scale and pressure of the moment. None of the three women managed a clean skate in their event. Karen Chen blamed her skates for her poor result and struggled to maintain her composure when talking about how little she has been able to see her mother in Pyeongchang, while Nagasu told the media that her performance was an audition for "Dancing With the Stars," not an attempt at a medal.
Nagasu's statement was a shocking admission from an athlete who doggedly refused to give up after being overlooked for the 2014 Olympic team, but it also was fitting. She and Rippon have thrown themselves into internet stardom, courting attention from celebrities on social media and lining up post-Olympics opportunities. Their skating took a backseat.
The women aren't the only problem. Nathan Chen had a spectacularly poor short program that even a record-breaking six quads in the free skate couldn't save. Rippon replaced his sole quad jump with a double axel, making his routine noncompetitive from the start. As for pairs, the U.S. hasn't been in the medal conversation in years. Husband-and-wife team Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim skated to the best of their ability in the team event, but openly acknowledged they weren't up to snuff individually. "We're not at the point in our career yet where we're aiming to be in the top five or six," Scimeca-Knierim said. "Those teams are a little more advanced for now. We just stick to one another and work on what we're good at."
The one discipline in which Team USA is thriving is ice dance, and there's a reason behind it. The world's top ice dance teams cluster together, competing with each other on a daily basis and spurring each other on to greater heights. The Shibutanis train in Michigan under legendary coach Marina Zueva, who gathers students from all over the world. Virtue and Moir train in Montreal alongside their closest rivals, silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, as well as the U.S.'s Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who finished in fourth. Russia, Canada and Japan, who have emerged as the true skating powerhouses, employ similar systems. Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, the women's gold and silver medalists, train together alongside many younger skaters, who force them to stay sharp.
"It builds them into fierce competitors because they're competing every day," said American Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu. "When they come out here and compete, it's like what they were doing at home, no difference. It's a huge mindset advantage."
American skaters will go home talking up their bronze medals, but those are a poor consolation from a competition where their flaws were more obvious and numerous than their strengths. Pyeongchang bore witness to many memorable programs that raised the level of figure skating around the world. Team USA was rarely among them.