GANGNEUN, South Korea—It always happens at the Olympics: First the figure skaters fall, and then the tears do. Makeup and glamorous outfits are the sport’s disguise. The Olympic individual free skate is one of the most tension-filled events in sports. It’s like the back nine on Sunday at the Masters: The athletes are out there all alone, with no teammates, just thoughts and demons in a sport that requires extreme precision under pressure.
Karen Chen of the U.S. fell, then said, “I am extremely disappointed. I’m not going to lie. I train myself to skate better than that.” She ended her media interviews in tears.
Gabrielle Daleman of Canada was an emotional wreck as she talked about the nausea that built up inside her two minutes before her skate. She could not hold back tears as she said, “There was nothing in that program I felt good about. I feel bad about dragging my dad and my brother [here] from Canada.”
And the U.S.’s Mirai Nagasu, who arrived here with high hopes but finished 12th in the free skate and 10th overall, said, “I smiled in the middle of my program, which is really rare for me. So I enjoyed myself, and I thought of this as my audition for Dancing With the Stars.”
“I would like to be on Dancing With the Stars because I want to be a star,” Nagasu said.
She was still smiling. There was no hint of disappointment in her voice. She seemed to think she’d been chosen out of the audience on a cruise ship to go on stage for a magic trick. There was no indication that she knew this was the Olympic Games.
Nagasu is the only woman here who had a triple axel in her program. But when it came time to try the triple in her free skate, she aborted the jump. Well, again: This is an extremely tense event. Failure is part of it. If Nagasu caved to the pressure of the moment, she only gets empathy from this corner. We have all been there.
But then she said, “Although I got zero points for my attempt at the triple axel, in my mind I went for it.” And I wanted to put my hand on her forehead to see if she was running a fever. Maybe she went for it in her mind. On the ice, she bailed. There was a reason she got zero points. Bailing is understandable; the explanation was not.
Nagasu has had an amazing and difficult career. She skated in the 2010 Games, then was devastated after being left off the 2014 team. She worked her way onto this year's team. Maybe the pressure got to her here—not just on the ice, but afterward.
She fluttered through the interview like a butterfly at a funeral, oblivious to everything happening around her. Bizarre only begins to describe it. She even took shots at other skaters, though it was unclear if she even realized she was doing it.
“I saved the team event, with Adam [Rippon] and the Shibutanis,” she said. “We were about to lose our medals. So today I put my [bronze] medal in my pocket. Here she is! And I said, ‘Mirai, you’ve done your job already. This is all just icing.’”
There is a lot to unpack there, starting with referring to the medal as “she.” Why not name it? I’d go with Bobbie Mae, as a nod to Bronze Medal. But let’s focus on what she said about the team event.
Nagasu won her bronze with seven other skaters: Rippon, Alexa and Maia Shibutani, Bradie Tennell, Nathan Chen, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim. By saying she “saved” the event with Rippon and the Shibutanis— because they were about to “lose our medals” —Nagasu took credit while implicitly criticizing her teammates. If an athlete in any other sport did that, we’d go nuts. Tom Brady played one of the great games of his life in last month’s Super Bowl, but his Patriots lost because the defense got shredded by a backup quarterback. I never heard Brady blame the defense.
And by the way: What Nagasu said about the team event is not even really true. When she did her free skate, the U.S. was in third place, two points ahead of Italy. That does not fit any definition of “about to lose our medals.” Nagasu nailed her free skate, finishing second and pushing the U.S. to a four-point lead. But even if she had finished dead last, the U.S. would have ended up beating the Italians for the bronze.
She wasn’t done. Somebody (not me, just so we are clear) asked her why the U.S. skaters seemed to struggle with the pressure here. Nagasu responded, “That’s a very aggressive question. I’d like to point out that Gabrielle Daleman, who is an Olympic gold medalist, didn’t have a strong outing here in the individual.”
I’m sure Daleman will enjoy reading that, once she is finished crying and blaming herself for letting down her family. Anybody with a soul had to feel for Daleman, and for Chen, and for all the skaters who worked for years to get here, only to skate less than their best. As Daleman said, “Crap happens.” It sucks for all of them, including Nagasu. It’s sad that Nagasu is the only one who couldn’t see that.